ROME — If anyone can compete with Pope John Paul II for the adoration of pilgrims these days it's Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun whose work with Calcutta's poor put her on a fast track to sainthood.
Her beatification ceremony tomorrow in St. Peter's Square is for many pilgrims the highlight of weeklong events marking the 25th anniversary of John Paul's pontificate.
"We came for Mother Teresa," said 60-year-old Dubliner Joan Pierse, after attending John Paul's weekly audience Wednesday with her sister. "Seeing the Pope was a bonus.
"Mother Teresa is a model for everyone," Pierse added.
Many of the 250,000 pilgrims expected for the beatification ceremony, the final formal stage before sainthood, have already arrived. Their presence has added to the pre-ceremony mania for the late nun sweeping the city.
Along with the Mother Teresa plates, good-luck charms and portraits being offered by street vendors is the non-stop promotion of a made-for-TV movie of her life by the Rai network, Italy's public broadcaster. The first of two parts airs tomorrow night.
There are earnest TV documentaries and discussions of her work. Some have highlighted the story of Giuliana Tofani, who says her crippling muscle disease vanished when she suddenly heard Mother Teresa's voice telling her to walk.
More entertaining is Mother Teresa — The Musical, which opened to sell-out crowds in Rome this week after a tour in other parts of the country attracted some 70,000 people.
With reggae, funk and pop tunes, the show singers belt out the half-century of charity work performed by Mother Teresa and the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity.
The show reportedly hasn't gone over well with the real Missionaries of Charity, who have opened an exhibit of Mother Teresa in a church on Via Merulana, about a block away from the theatre where the musical is playing.
When asked about the show, the sisters refuse to comment. They insist that Mother Teresa's life and work should speak for itself.
She was born in 1910 in Skopje, then the capital of the province of Kosovo in the Ottoman empire. Skopje is now the capital of the country of Macedonia.
"By blood I am an Albanian, by citizenship I am Indian, by fact I am a Catholic nun," Mother Teresa once said. "As to my heart, I belong entirely to Jesus."
The exhibit, most of it large pictures of Mother Teresa working with the poor, notes that she founded her order in 1950, and went on to open hostels and clinics in Calcutta's slums, and a centre for people afflicted with leprosy.
It also displays one of the simple white saris with blue stripes that she wore.
In 1979 she won the Nobel Prize for peace, and by the time she died in 1997, 4,500 nuns were members of her order, working in 132 countries.
One exhibit notes she received more than 700 awards during her life, adding that "Mother Teresa suffered criticism and painful controversies with the same faith as she accepted prizes."
It's a clear reference to charges in a 1996 book by British journalist Christopher Hitchens, who portrays the diminutive nun as a publicity-seeking religious fundamentalist who felt at home with dictators.
In published interviews about his book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Hitchens charges that the unknown millions she collected was used, not to help the poor, but to open convents and nunneries "for the greater glory of her order."
Hitchens questions why Mother Teresa never built a modern hospital in Calcutta. He criticizes the medical care her nuns provided in the Charity's clinics as "rudimentary" and unsanitary.
He especially condemns her for praising the Duvalier family, the former autocratic rulers of Haiti, as people who loved the poor, and for laying a wreath at the tomb of former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.
Mother Teresa's devoted followers point to her beatification as the true measure of her work.
But some Vatican watchers believe the Pope has diminished the value of sainthood by the sheer number he has proclaimed. Since 1978, John Paul has beatified 1,310 people and canonized 476 saints — more than all the previous 262 popes put together.