Holiness is Not a Luxury of the Pure

When I mention that I wrote an undergraduate thesis, most people say something like ‘oh that must have been boring,’ or ‘why did you do that?’. It wasn’t boring and I did it because I wanted to do it. And I really enjoyed the process. It was one of the biggest projects I’ve undertaken (to date, even after graduate school and university projects under my belt).

A friend of mine recently asked if he could see a copy and it spurred me to finally dust off the copy and put it in the open access world for your reading pleasure. It’s called “Holiness is Not a Luxury of the Pure”: Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Struggle Over Symbols. It’s now available in the University of Arkansas’ permanent archive. Here’s permanent uri: http://hdl.handle.net/10826/ETD-2011-05-253. You can access the original, editable version (MS Word) in Dropbox.

Warning, it’s 98 pages long. And by the way, it’s licensed CC: BY-SA 3.0.

Continue reading for the Preface.

The season was shifting and the Mediterranean winds were bringing in unpredictable weather. I had just returned from northern Italy, visiting the Veneto area,
where it was already cold. Waking up early on Sunday morning I put on layers just in case the day turned out to be colder than anticipated. I was studying in Rome for the semester through the University of Arkansas’ Rome Study Center. Early in the week, the Center had posted a bulletin of upcoming events in Rome. I knew the current Pope, John Paul II, was celebrating his 25th year of service to the Roman Catholic Church but I didn’t know that he was planning to beatify Mother Teresa. This event was posted as free and open to the public and I was excited for the opportunity to attend an event of such ecclesiastic significance.

I boarded the bus, willing to stop at Termini, the main station of Rome, to transfer to the underground metro. I had seen the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Tiber River. I wasn’t going to the ceremony to be so much a tourist as a participant in a cultural event, as a citizen of Rome and of the world. As I entered the underground of the metro, other people converged into the narrow halls and we entered the trains together. Almost invisible through their action, but made prominent by their clothing, were priests, nuns, and clergy of various ranks and sects from all over the world. Their garb individualized them and created for them both an identity with the Church and with the community they served at home. Priests, nuns, and clergy had always been my companions in local travel throughout the months I spent in Rome, but the period leading up to these celebrations was signaled by an increase in the types (and the appearance) of ecclesiastic members filtering through the streets on a daily basis. They traveled with the same maps and confusion that I had endured with during my first days in Rome, but they also seemed to carry a serene air of comfort with them, as if they knew they were in the religious center of their world, and their status would protect them in this Eternal City.

I stepped into the light from the metro blocks away from piazza San Pietro but immediately I became enmeshed in an energized mass of humanity, all moving in the same direction: toward the huge square in Vatican City. There were troupes of people,many bearing home-made shirts emblazoned with crests of regions, countries, dioceses, and church communities; there were individuals, couples, families–all walking toward piazza San Pietro, the public space between the outside world and the world of the Catholic Church. Along the edges of the walking masses, men and women shouted out their items for sale: Mother Teresa’s image on commemorative scarves, flags with the Vatican seal, Mother Teresa dolls, special rosaries; any conceivable item associated with Mother Teresa or with the Church was available in cheap imitation for sale to those wishing to commemorate the event with a commodity.

At the gates of the Square I was stopped and asked for a ticket. I had no ticket. I had been told the ceremony was open to all and free. I was nervous. The Vatican guard smiled and said, in well-accented English, something about the ceremony being free and open to all. I was waved through the gates after my bags were scanned, and, ticketless, ushered into the immense square. It looked smaller than I had seen it previously, with only dozens of tourists. It was now packed and as I looked behind me, so was Via della Conciliazione, the grand boulevard created by Mussolini to symbolically link the Vatican to Rome with an imposing entrance.

I began to take note of the people gathered around–what they looked like and how they talked. I sketched a few emblems I was unfamiliar with in the notebook I had brought along. One symbol I saw on flags, on shirts, on blankets, on banners, turned out to be, upon later research, the double crested great black bird of Albania. Those who could talk to each other did, and I was approached twice by news parties vying for interviews. I declined both opportunities. But others approached, individuals or members of groups with smiles on their faces. I felt free to chat with them, secure in the feelings of goodwill and in the security measures of the Vatican.

Soon cardinals, dressed in magenta robes, and the stark red of the bishops could be seen filing into their setting in the square, slowly proceeding through the audience to the constructed stage with the altar positioned in front of the entrance to St. Peter’s. I would be able to see carefully chosen individuals, scenes, words, speeches, from the huge television screens positioned neatly and evenly through the square and down the Via. I was aware of how carefully orchestrated our movements were; the square was carefully partitioned to allow movement of the clergy through the audience. As the weather warmed I shed some layers of my clothing and wondered if wearing a sleeveless blouse in the square would be considered blasphemous, as it was considered inside the churches of this antique religion. On an unexpectedly temperate and cloudless day, the ceremony and the beatification of Mother Teresa would soon begin.


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