CAN WE STILL DISTINGUISH BETWEEN SAINTHOOD AND CELEBRITY?
Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, & the Media

November 1997By Wesley D. Avram

The Rev. Wesley D. Avram is Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette, Illinois, near Chicago.

I watched the ABC coverage of the funeral. “Princess Diana — The Final Farewell,” the television screen announced, as if to say I was about to watch the last episode of a long made-for-TV mini-series. The most photographed woman in the world was dead, at 36, at the height of her beauty and influence, but after her fairy-tale life had taken a distinctly modern turn. This woman deftly co-operated in giving the old-fashioned institution of royalty the brittle gloss of media celebrity. If Diana had not existed, the media would have had to invent her. And, in a way, they did.

We compose the image again in our minds: a virgin teenager (daughter of an apparently dysfunctional family with royal ties) and a nanny and teacher’s aide with hopes of being a princess, who wins her dream. At 19 she is borne by carriage to her new position, and by some readings performs wonderfully. An heir to the throne and another healthy boy later, she grows into adulthood before the hungry cameras of an intrusive press and an overly curious public. She learns well the social graces and the philanthropic expressions of noblesse oblige. And she earns a reputation for a kind of unprecedented intimacy — an odd kind of love affair — with her people. But the subplot overtakes the fairy tale: a loveless marriage, rumors of indiscretion and disrespect within the royal family, infidelity on one side that eventually becomes mutual, an eating disorder, and struggles with self-esteem. Then a divorce. And extended vacations with various boyfriends. And, then, her body is carried to its grave.

Our People magazine princess is gone. The piles upon piles of flowers (40 million dollars worth in Britain alone), the endless television programs, and queues of the devoted waiting in line to sign a book of condolences, and all the tired eyes — including my own — forced open early in the morning to watch the funeral live: They seem to say that the moment of Diana’s death is somehow ours, strangely ours, particularly among us who are near her in age, and most especially among women of her generation. Her life and her death evoked extravagant feelings of empathy, desire, admiration. They gave us a kind of release, an opportunity to mourn the twists and turns of life and to remember our own dreams. But they didn’t really change us much, did they?

Eventually the tellings and retellings of her story wound down, and perhaps we tired of the editorial rehashing of her fate. The cue enters the text here to shift focus to Mother Teresa, with history having made these two women odd partners in a week of worldwide mourning. An eerie juxtaposition, at best. Did Mother Teresa’s death, coming hard on the heels of Diana’s, perhaps invite us to sober up?


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