Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Teresa and Diana
September 15, 1997
By a remarkable coincidence, two of the world's most famous women died within a week of each other: Princess Diana at 36 in a tragic automobile accident and Mother Teresa at 87 of heart failure. These two women had more in common than their world-wide fame. They both expressed a concern for the sick and needy. Both were highly successful in using the media to draw attention to their favored causes. Their funerals received world-wide television coverage with audiences reaching into the hundreds of millions.
The two women were also profoundly different. One was born to wealth and privilege, the other was born into very modest circumstances. One lived a life of luxury; the other chose utter simplicity. One died young in a needless accident; the other died in old age after a life time of serving others. One was a deeply troubled person who had faced rejection by those nearest her; the other was at peace with herself and was surrounded by loving friends and co-workers.
Considering these similarities and differences, what is especially striking is the enormous popularity of both women. In a jaded age when many are convinced we have multiple celebrities but few heroes and heroines, many politicians but few leaders, suddenly our TV screens were filled with long lines of people waiting to express their condolences and the tear-streaked faces of thousands of mourners.
The common thread that made both Mother Teresa and Princess Diana such appealing figures for millions was their open sincerity. In quite different ways both women displayed a refreshing honesty and openness. Princess Diana did not hide the impossible hurdles she faced in trying to fit into the royal family. Nor did she deny her struggles with bulimia and even suicide. She openly expressed her desire to humanize the British monarchy and to raise her sons to be in touch with the real world.
Mother Teresa was a servant of God, moved by human suffering to minister to the poorest of the poor. She was a Christian in the Catholic tradition and accepted her church's teachings on abortion and birth control. She did not pretend to be anyone other than herself, whether meeting world leaders or ministering to the dying of Calcutta.
People were willing to overlook Princess Diana's shortcomings because a real person came through, a person with hopes, dreams, crushing failures, and an open vulnerability. Even those who disagreed with Mother Teresa on abortion or birth control admired and honored her because of her integrity—she acted out of deep faith at the core of her being. There was little of pretense or affectation in either woman. That is what struck a responsive cord in millions around the world.
As voter turnout continues to decline in the United States and as more and more people turn away from politics in disgust, political commentators rightly worry about the future of a democratic system whose leaders have lost the trust of their citizens.
There is something important citizens and political leaders alike can learn from Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. The public is longing to see sincerity, openness, and integrity. The public is looking for freshness and genuine humanness in its leaders. Even more than we may suspect, the success of government and, ultimately, the health of democracy may depend on leaders who do not simply contrive to be what the polls show is popular, but openly communicate by words and actions who they really are and what they truly believe.
—Stephen V. Monsma, Professor of Political Science
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”