Overcome by emotion during a visit with some of the most unfortunate people in this decaying and overpopulated city, Pope John Paul II today comforted and helped feed patients at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying and Destitute, the clinic that brought the diminutive nun to world fame and the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize.
The moving encounter between the pontiff and the desperately sick poor of this port city took place as he paid homage to Mother Teresa at her Nirmal Hriday Ashram here.
Before a cheering crowd of tens of thousands who jammed the streets around this hospice, a beaming John Paul embraced the frail, stooped but seemingly indefatigable 76-year-old nun, put an arm around her shoulders while he greeted the first ecstatic crowd he has encountered since coming to India three days ago, then walked into the clinic clasping Mother Teresa's hand.
"This is the happiest day of my life," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls quoted Mother Teresa as saying as she led the pope into the spartan clinic that she founded in the corner of a Hindu temple dedicated to Kali, the mother-goddess of destruction. "I have been waiting for this for very long. He is truly a real father."
Earlier, as she awaited the pope's arrival by plane from New Delhi, where he began a 10-day visit to India Saturday, Mother Teresa told visiting journalists: "He is coming to the poorest of the poor like Jesus. That the Holy Father, the pope himself, is coming into the house of the dying is a wonderful thing."
According to spokesman Navarro, who accompanied the pope and Mother Teresa through the clinic to visit 85 patients and bless the remains of four persons who had died there during the day, the pope "was very, very moved" by his visit to two separate wards -- one for men, the other for women -- where patients lay on meager cots in long rows. "I never saw him actually cry," Navarro said later, "but sometimes when Mother Teresa asked him questions, he was too choked up by emotion to answer."
The pope "touched every single person" in both wards, either shaking their hands, holding their heads, or, if the patients were unconscious or too close to death to be aware of his visit, making the sign of the cross on their foreheads, Navarro said. Although only a few of the patients were Roman Catholics -- most being Hindus from the slums around the clinic -- the pope also handed a rosary to each patient.
As he was visiting the wards, the nurses of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity order began serving the patients' dinner, bringing in trays of omelets and glasses of milk, according to Navarro. The pope, Navarro said, helped take the food to the patients, serving dinner trays to 8 or 10 men patients and about 7 women. He tried to feed one woman with a spoon, but a nurse ran up and took over the chore before he could, the spokesman said.
After visiting the patients, Mother Teresa took the pontiff into the morgue to bless the day's four dead -- one woman, two men and a young boy. Only one of the dead was a Christian, Navarro said.
Mother Teresa told the pope that since she opened her clinic here in 1952, 49,686 persons have been treated and that about 22,000 of them have died because their illnesses were too far advanced to cure.
Later, in a brief speech outside the clinic, the pope said that the clinic was "a place that bears witness to the primacy of love.
"Nirmal Hriday is a place of suffering, a house familiar with anguish and pain, a home for the destitute and dying," the pope said, speaking slowly. "At the same time Nirmal Hriday is a place of hope, a house built on courage and faith, a home where love reigns . . . . In Nirmal Hriday, the mystery of human suffering meets the mystery of faith and love."
In the Jesuit missionary center in Ranchi, in Bihar State, on his way here this morning, the pope was greeted by what Indian security officials said was a crowd of about 200,000. Most were the non-Hindu tribal people of the province who have been India's main converts to Christianity during the past century.
The gaily dressed crowd greeted the pope with traditional music, native dances and led him to the raised outdoor stand where he celebrated mass.
But it was in Calcutta, a sprawling city of more that 10 million people, that the pope met a warm and enthusiastic reception, even though there are only about 76,000 Roman Catholics here. On the 14-mile route from the airport to Mother Teresa's, more than 100,000 people gathered to greet him.
Thousands of Catholic school girls waved yellow and white papal flags while nuns cheered and applauded. Others, some seemingly curious slum-dwellers stared. Banners welcoming him were displayed as he passed.
One of the local Hindu organizers of the crowd outside Mother Teresa's ashram, a young man named Dabi Prasad Banerjee, explained why so many Hindus came: "The pope is a saint. We admire him," he said.