Religion news '97 -- celebrity trumps saintliness

After the shock, came grief and after the grief, came waves of praise and admiration that raised Princess Diana from superstar, loving mother and humanitarian to mass-media sainthood.

It didn't take long for a few commentators to ask a blunt, but obvious question: Would the death of a living saint such as Mother Teresa produce anywhere near the same outpouring of emotion around the world?

Then Mother Teresa died. It was impossible for editors and producers to avoid comparisons between their handling of the deaths of these two remarkable women who were both on a first- name basis with the world. What to do? If they gave Diana's funeral more coverage than Mother Teresa's death, this would only prove that celebrity trumps saintliness. Yet decreasing Diana coverage might prove financially catastrophic. Even playing the stories side-by-side awkwardly implied equal status.

The Religion Newswriters Association's ballot to determine the year's top 10 religion stories began with a simple reference to the "life and death of Mother Teresa" and didn't include a clear reference to Princess Diana. The passing of Mother Teresa was voted as the top story on the religion beat and she also was named religion newsmaker of the year.

Yet it's impossible to discuss the public impact of the tiny nun's death without mentioning Diana. The juxtaposition was simply too ironic. This was, as Time magazine put it, "The Year Emotions Ruled," and the emotions generated by Diana's photogenic life simply had more mass appeal than those inspired by Mother Teresa's.

The Evangelical newsmagazine World bluntly decreed that the "conjunction of Mother Teresa's death with that of Princess Diana shows once again the instructiveness of God's providence. The two women were both media sensations, but they were poles apart in terms of the world's values. One enjoyed the highest social status of all; the other identified herself with the lowest of the low. One helped the unfortunate by sponsoring fundraisers; the other by washing the sores of lepers and ministering to the dying. One was the height of fashion, wealth, and glamour; the other wore a white and blue sari, but exuded a far different kind of beauty."

But perhaps it was a caller named Terry who, during the Rush Limbaugh radio show, best expressed the tensions many felt while watching Diana's media star outshine that of Calcutta's saint of the gutters.

"We wanted to be like Diana and not many of us wanted to be like Mother Teresa. And that's sad," she said.

The other nine events in the RNA's 1997 list were:

* The Promise Keepers movement draws a million or so men to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in an emotional display of repentance and commitment to marriage, family life and racial reconciliation. Then a coalition of religious and secular groups rallies hundreds of thousands of black women in the streets of Philadelphia.

* Shortly after posting mysterious revelations in cyberspace, guru Marshall Applewhite and 38 members of his high- tech Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide -- claiming that the Hale-Bopp comet would carry them to a higher spiritual level.

* Scottish scientists clone Dolly the sheep, raising myriad questions about what happens when researchers begin playing with the building blocks of creation.

* After 32 years of talks, four old-line denominations -- the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ -- agree to full communion, including the recognition of each other's ministries and sacraments.

* Led by the Southern Baptist Convention, a coalition of conservative Protestants and Catholics attempts to boycott the Walt Disney empire.

* Shaken by reports of scandals, National Baptists vote to retain the embattled leader of the nation's largest black church.

* The U.S. State Department releases a long-awaited report on religious persecution, shortly before 8 million Americans in about 50,000 Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations take part in prayer services for persecuted Christians around the world.

* Facing an invasion of alternative religions and other Christian churches, Russian lawmakers pass a strict law to protect the favored status of Russian Orthodoxy.

* Oregon voters reaffirm the status of physician-assisted suicide.