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World: Roman Catholic Faithful Look To Rome This Weekend

  • Don Hill

Pope John Paul II, head of the Roman Catholic Church, is scheduled on 19 October to beatify Mother Teresa, who earned international admiration for her good works. RFE/RL reports that what has turned into a frenzied media event is -- behind the scenes -- focusing on the health of two main participants. They are the pope, who is nearing the end of his life, and an Indian woman who says Mother Teresa reached from the grave to save hers.

Prague, 17 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The health of two remarkable people figures prominently this weekend in an event in Rome that is capturing the attention of Roman Catholics and others around the globe.

One of the people is Pope John Paul II, whose fragility at the age of 83 has become of open concern at the Vatican. Despite his health problems, the pope plans to officiate on 19 October at the beatification -- a step on the path to sainthood -- of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

The other person is Monica Besra of Nakor, a village 450 kilometers north of Calcutta in India. Besra is the Indian woman whose recovery from a stomach tumor in 1998 is an essential part of the evidence for those who advocate Mother Teresa's recognition as a saint. Besra -- who is 35 years old and well -- plans to travel the roughly 7,000 kilometers from her home to attend the beatification ceremony in Rome.

Besra contends that her recovery from cancer was a miracle brought about when sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, followers of Mother Teresa, prayed for Besra at a special Mass on the first anniversary of Mother Teresa's death.

The pope last December accepted the cure as a miracle attributable to Mother Teresa.

Besra dismisses the contention of critics that human medical care cured her. She insists that "Mother's blessing cured me." And, she says, her doctors were amazed.

All of this, of course, is only background to the beatification event, set to take place in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. The event's organizers expect more than 200,000 people from around the world to attend.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to ethnic Albanian parents in 1910 in Skopje, in what is now Macedonia. Although her life's work among the poorest of the poor centered on the slums of India, she maintained that she was Albanian by blood. Thus, in Albania and in Albanian-majority Kosovo, the honors to be bestowed on her this weekend are especially meaningful.

Dom Lush Gjergji is a Kosovar Albanian author and scholar widely known as the biographer of Mother Teresa. His books have been translated into 35 languages. He says the beatification is a source of joy for Kosovars of all faiths.

"We in Kosovo have been preparing for this event not only now, but for years. It is an important religious and national event, because for the first time officially, an Albanian is going through beatification by the Catholic Church headed by Pope John Paul. In a word, everyone in Kosovo is looking forward to this day with joy and happiness, by thanking God, the church, the pope, and especially by thanking the family Bojaxhiu and our Mother [Teresa], who represented us to the world with a special dignity," Gjergji said.

Some skeptics question the rush to honors that have followed Mother Teresa's death in 1997. A year later, Pope John Paul II waived the usual five-year waiting period for beginning a beatification process. Some say the pope shortened the process because he wanted to personally conduct the beatification before he died.

Gjergji says he thinks the extraordinary speed was the result of a global consensus: "This process is partly hurried because Mother Theresa's life and her activities were extraordinary. She was extraordinary beyond any rule. She became a mother to the whole world, an Albanian who through kindness and love gained the hearts of the world. So I would call it a worldwide vote of confidence from the Catholic Church and other churches, be they Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim, to have a saint Mother, because after all she was a living saint."

Beatification is only one step, of course, on the way to sainthood. Mother Teresa's advocates must document at least one more miracle and meet many other requirements before canonization as a saint.

In Rome, however, a near frenzy is mounting over the beatification. Members of the Missionaries of Charity have built an exhibit called "Mother Teresa: Life, Spirit, and Message" devoted to a pious depiction of her work. Nearby, a rather more irreverent show entitled "Mother Teresa -- The Musical" depicts her as a singer and dancer capable of making -- in the words of the Bible -- "a joyful noise unto the Lord."

The festivities -- both devotional and secular -- will be covered by the world's press and broadcast by multiple TV and radio outlets.

Drops of Mother Teresa's blood and a lock of her hair will be deposited in the Vatican as relics to be venerated.

All of which would no doubt astonish Mother Teresa herself, who -- at least in her public persona -- stood as a model of extreme personal humility. Here's a prayer she uttered during a visit to the United Nations in 1988, as recorded by a correspondent for Voice of America.

"My Lord, I repent from the bottom of my heart all my sins. I rejected paradise and I accepted hell. I deserve damnation because I offended you, the source of infinite goodness, although you loved me so much. I ask your mercy, my Lord. Forgive me, and I vow that with your help I will not offend against you any more."

On the same occasion at the UN, she turned to a crowd of well-wishers and offered a kind of trademark benediction: "I am praying for you. God be with you."

(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service assisted with this report.)