Page 10, 13th June 1980

13th June 1980
Page 10
Page 10, 13th June 1980 — A sacred little old witch

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Organisations: British regiment
Locations: Essen, Berlin


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A sacred little old witch

WHEN I was in Berlin, there was going on one of those German things, I think I have mentioned it already, but it was the Catholic Day which naturally lasted for five days. But in the course of my being entertained by the Rangers who are not a Catholic, nor a Christian, but only a British regiment, and therefore both, I got invited to a Mass at the Tegel prison.

It is said to be the largest prison in Europe, which I doubt. But that is not a thing for which we would compete. It has 1,400 inmates. And one of them is English. Convicted of murder. And not a soldier. God help us all.

So they asked me to go there for a Mass which was a part of

this Catholic Day in what is a basically non-Catholic Berlin.

It was the usual boring 19th century romantic prison. Gothic. horrible. Meant to terrify. Extremely hard to find.

But then we were met by a Salvatorian Father in a dotty biretta who was. I gathered, the chaplain of the prison. And the whole thing has been beautifully organised both by the Rangers and by the Catholic chaplain to the Garrison in Berlin — at least for me. And then the occassion had me most humbly upon my knees.

I arrived with a major in the uniform of his regiment which is a tiny bit ostentatious and his wife who is beautiful. and with the chaplain who was in khaki the Berliners were pleased to receive us strangers, and who took us quite easily into the prison chapel. This is an old fashioned place. All the benches sloped down towards what could he anybody's altar so that all the prisoner can be seen at once.

This is the Tegel prison. They say without boasting that it is the largest prison in Europe and it holds 1,400 people. There is an altar at the bottom a this torrent of benches that goes down towards the poor and narrow sanctuary. It was not a very pleasant place.

And then, God save us all, the whole place was transformed.

There was a marvellous choir from some German cathedral and there was a pretty adequate organ. And picking their way down the stairs between the choir and three layers of guests and the prisoners, there came a procession led by prisoners who were robed more elaborately than we arc accustomed to, followed up by the Bishop or Essen, who is in charge of prison affairs in Germany, and at the hack of it, Mother Teresa.

The Mass began. Because the choir of Regensburg Cathedral was there, the music was supcb. They even sang Mozart's Ave Verum without emotion. I sat in a prisoners bench totally rivetted.

But then, after the Bishop of Essen had said to us that we were all people who had done evil things and only some of us were inside for it. there came up this sacred little old witch of a woman.

Now. I have never seen Mother Teresa before in my life. She is a whisp of a woman. She does not look English. She is quite clearly Middle European. tough as old boots, superb, incredibly beautiful in an aged manner, wrapped up in a dingy sari with a boring old grey woolly over it all, so dominating a person in her humility that I bowed as she went past and she, God help me, joined her hands in the Indian manner to return my formal bow.

It was a Mass of great beauty. And when the Bidding Prayers came. she read them in the tiny, birdy, superbly humble, almost inaudible voice. I have never been in a church which was so pin-droppingly silent.

And then there was the Communion. and among the prisoners there was Mother Teresa taking Communion with them in a row.

Before that, there had been the moment of giving of the incenve and the priest deacon who had assisted the Bishop came down and incensed her personally.

This is an honour that is given by protocol only to the heads of Catholic states. And pompous old Charterhouse would never cornplain.

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