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Rome Glorifies Mother Teresa in Myriad Ways

Her beatification is accompanied by a play, a TV program and street vendors.

October 19, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — There are many ways to celebrate the elevation of Mother Teresa toward sainthood.

Nuns from her order, in their characteristic habits -- blue-trimmed white saris -- have flooded this city ahead of today's papal Mass in her honor. Street vendors are hawking Mother Teresa statues and Mother Teresa refrigerator magnets. Exhibits have been opened chronicling Mother Teresa's life, complete with her sandals, her gold Nobel Peace Prize medal and, starting next week, a vial of her blood.

And then there is "Mother Teresa: The Musical."

In the hit play that opened last week in Rome to sold-out performances, nuns sway to rousing pop-rock tunes, bare-chested men representing Calcutta "untouchables" writhe in jazzy dance numbers, and Mother Teresa does a sort of deus ex machina, descending onto the stage from above.

Never mind that this Mother Teresa is a blond 23-year-old Italian. She belts out songs with the best of them, telling audiences to love God and keep the faith.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Mother Teresa -- An Oct. 19 article in Section A about Mother Teresa mistakenly referred to the order she founded as the Missionaries of Charities. It is the Missionaries of Charity.

"I dream for you, I hope for all of you, I pray only for you," she sings in the opening act, from a piece called, "Her Name is Teresa."

Later, as a chorus line of the infirm and crippled springs to its feet, tossing away crutches, Mother Teresa sings, "You can cure yourself with perseverance. You can dance with patience. Feel the rhythm!"

The play toured Italy over the summer and came to Rome to coincide with Teresa's beatification ceremony today. In a Mass expected to draw 200,000 people, Pope John Paul II will place the nun, who died at age 87 in 1997 after a life of work with the poor, at one level below sainthood.

Teresa is reaching this vaunted status in record time. Usually there is a five-year waiting period after a person's death before his or her supporters can even begin the process of building a case for beatification or canonization.

But Mother Teresa's fame and following, and John Paul's special regard for her, prompted the pontiff to suspend the five-year rule in her case.

"Mother Teresa: The Musical" is not the only theatrical production on deck. RAI, the Italian state television network, will broadcast a two-part "mega-production" on the nun's life starting this weekend. British actress Olivia Hussey, who starred in Franco Zeffirelli's production of Romeo and Juliet 35 years ago, plays Mother Teresa.

"We should all try to emulate her," Hussey told the ANSA news agency.

Mother Teresa's story is not without its controversies.

To be beatified, one miracle must be attributed to her and authenticated by Vatican officials. The next step, sainthood, requires two miracles. The miracle that qualified Mother Teresa for today's beatification involves a Bengali woman who was dying from an ovarian tumor; after prayers to Mother Teresa, the tumor purportedly disappeared. But doctors in the woman's hometown have recently spoken out to dispute the case, asserting that the woman was cured by medicine, not divine intervention.

Mother Teresa is also the subject of competing claims of nationality. Born in 1910 in the Balkan city of Skopje, she often identified herself as Albanian. Skopje was in what was then an ethnically diverse corner of the Ottoman Empire.

Skopje today is the capital of Macedonia, and many Macedonians have tried to claim her -- to the outrage of Albanians. The ethnic rivalry between the two is among the most intransigent in Europe.

It came to a head a few months ago when a Macedonian artist, Tome Serafimovski, erected a statue in Mother Teresa's honor and planned to send a copy to Rome in time for the beatification. When reports circulated that the statue would carry a plaque labeling her as a "Macedonian Daughter," Albanians hit the roof.

Ultimately, the statue was not sent to Rome. At today's beatification, delegations are expected to attend from Macedonia, Albania and the Albanian-dominated Serbian province of Kosovo.

It is not surprising that so many people want a piece of Mother Teresa.

"Mother Teresa was a universal figure, loved by everyone," said Rita Tomassetti Galdieri, who stars in "Mother Teresa: The Musical," as a pregnant adulteress whom the nun saves from death by stoning.

"Performing in a play about her inspires me," said Galdieri, 32, a dancer and singer.

The creator of the play, Michele Paulicelli, said the idea was to pay tribute to Mother Teresa, not to use her name for commercial or other exploitive gain.

"Everyone knows her, but we are trying to make her more familiar," Paulicelli said backstage in his dressing room before a performance last week. "We are trying to show the things she actually did."

Mother Teresa's dramatic foil is a jaded, boozy journalist who tries throughout the play to score an exclusive interview with the famous nun. He never gets the interview, but, inspired, he ends up reformed, on the wagon and headed off to do humanitarian work in Africa.

Paulicelli, Galdieri and others involved in the production say they are religious Catholics, so satire or anything irreverent is the furthest thing from their minds. The only thing that bothers Galdieri, she said, is that sometimes children come to the play who are disabled or in wheelchairs. "It's as if they hope to actually meet Mother Teresa."

It is not clear what Mother Teresa's followers from the Missionaries of Charities, the order she founded, think of all this. Few have gone to see the play.

One official said he understood that the play was neither objectionable nor particularly profound.

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