WADOWICE, Poland – In 1988, when he was a convicted drug addict serving time in prison, he thought of God as a severe Father who punishes rather than loves. Until a tiny woman visited his prison.
That woman was Mother Teresa. James Wahlberg, once a convict, is now a film producer and has created a documentary about her that recently premiered in another country – Poland.
"Mother Teresa: No Greater Love," produced with the Knights of Columbus, commemorated the 25th anniversary of the death of one of the world's favorite saints, but the film also provides an exploration of her long-lasting legacy, and producers traveled the world to show it.
"This film is much bigger. ... Sometimes in Catholic programming ... budgets are very low. We had a full budget and we had full access to the Missionaries of Charity," Wahlberg told OSV News.
Brother of Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg, James was a troubled kid and fell into drug addiction. Asked about the encounter that changed his life, he said he had "goosebumps" and "emotion welling up" in his chest.
"I'm just thinking about that day, the day the first time I ever heard in my life that God loved me and that Jesus died for me," he said. He recalled there were 800 people in the room but he remembered Mother Teresa "talking to me."
"I didn't even know who she was. When the priest told me she was coming, I was like, oh, that's great. Who is she?" he recalled. "And for her to come in my sort of uneducated way of an understanding of God. For a moment, as I looked at her kneeling with the inmates, I looked at her. I thought she was God, you know, it was very profound. It's amazing when you can go back to that instant in your life, when your redemption begins," Wahlberg told OSV News.
The encounter with the tiny saint was the beginning of his dive into his Catholic faith.
The event in prison, he said, was "her time to shine" yet "she reminded us all that this event was not about her, that it was about Jesus and the love of Jesus. So instead of going up and being next to the cardinal and being important, she stayed humbly on the floor with murderers and rapists and drug addicts," he said.
"And it confused me. And so I went back to my cell and I didn't sleep. And the next day, when I got out of my cell, I ran back to the priest and said, I need to know more. About this Jesus that she's talking about. I need to know more about my faith. And he instantly started to catechize me and prepare me to be confirmed into the Catholic Church," Wahlberg told OSV News.
"Still, I have to believe that it was God's plan for my life … I'm just trying to be a pencil in his hand and to try to serve him in any way that I can," Wahlberg said.
Everyone in the world recognizes Mother Teresa’s sisters today, dressed in white Indian saris with blue trim. They are present in 750 facilities around the world – from South America and Haiti to the United States, Africa, the Philippines and India. The birthplace of their work is Kolkata, India. Their founder was canonized in 2016 by Pope Francis.
"It's a love affair that they share with Jesus Christ ... and an admiration and a respect and a and really a love, a deep, deep friendship that they shared," Wahlberg said.
The documentary shows the deep bond that Mother Teresa had with St. John Paul II.
"I think Mother inspired St. Pope John Paul II. In the way that she served the poorest of the poor, the weakest of the weak," Wahlberg said.
In fact, St. John Paul asked Mother Teresa to go to places where he was unable to visit, such as Moscow.
"He told her: 'You can go places I can't go. Please go and spread the Gospel.' And she did that. She went everywhere. She went anywhere that was poor. … She said I would go to the moon if there were poor people there to serve them," recalled the producer of "Mother Teresa: No Greater Love."
Wahlberg said that through filming the documentary, he learned that "Mother (Teresa) lives through every one of the Missionaries of Charity. We did a premiere in Washington, D.C., and I was sitting in the 10th row, and in the first four rows, there were all Missionaries of Charity with their habits on. And it was so amazing to just look at the back of their heads because they're all very little," he said.
"And then we went up to speak and I was inspired to say, 'You are Mother Teresa and you are Mother Teresa, and you are.' Each one of them is an extension of her. They are her fingers and her toes, and they serve the poor with the same love and the same great desire to see Jesus and everyone. It's beautiful," Wahlberg told OSV News.
The documentary premiered in Poland Oct. 19. In 2022, it premiered at the Vatican on Aug. 31, and American viewers could see it in select theaters Oct. 3-4 that year.
"This is far more than a documentary film. It is at once a soaring tribute to a spiritual icon, a powerful witness of authentic Christian charity, and a guidepost for all who seek hope in our turbulent times," the film's website says.
Asked about the Polish premiere, Wahlberg said the Polish reception of the film "exceeded my expectations."
"To see people moved the way they were moved and to see the reaction to the standing ovation. It's kind of embarrassing because they're clapping, looking at us and we're like, no, no, the clapping belongs to Mother. And for the work that she did, we did nothing. We did very little," he said.
"The goal is to introduce Mother to a new generation, in the love and the service that she did. ... It was very important for us also to share the Missionaries of Charity work that continues,” he added. "And so each of those countries that we went to, we saw the work and we as an audience got to meet the poor and to see the love that they receive from the Missionaries of Charity."
Paulina Guzik is international editor of OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @Guzik_Paulina.