VATICAN CITY - Royalty prayed alongside the poor, and Indian dancers shared the stage with the world's most eminent prelates as Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta yesterday, giving the famous nun an elite status one step short of sainthood just six years after her death.
Before an enormous audience that spilled from St. Peter's Square down the broad Via della Conciliazione to the Tiber River, the woman already known as "the Saint of the Gutters" for her work with the sick, dying and unwanted was named "blessed" by a frail, sick pope.
He praised her as a model of the Good Samaritan, saying her goodness derived from having "chosen to be not just the least, but to be the servant of the least."
The ceremony rang with song and languages, and sparkled with colors of costumes, faces, flags and flowers. It took place under blue skies despite fierce rainstorms overnight.
But the pope, who greatly admired Mother Teresa, was unable to read his homily in her honor - the first time the physically deteriorating pontiff has not pronounced any part of a major papal address.
For many of the tens of thousands of pilgrims who crowded into Vatican City, beatification was merely a formality. Some officials estimated the crowd at 300,000, one of the largest audiences at the Vatican ever.
"Saint or no saint, she was a uniquely good woman," said Jacqueline Munoz, 33, of Lima, Peru. "A noble, kindhearted woman who did everything for the poor and sick. It doesn't matter what title she has."
Ranee Clayton, 63, a psychotherapist who traveled from Corpus Christi, Texas, to see the pope beatify Mother Teresa, said the nun cured souls as well as bodies.
"In the field you hear all kinds of bad stuff; she was a dose of good stuff," Clayton said.
The ceremony underscored two elements the pope considers especially important: the international flavor of the church and attention to the poor.
Diversity and multiculturalism were in full view as regional rituals were incorporated into an ancient Catholic rite, reflecting also Mother Teresa's fame and following.
In a procession before the pope, known as the offertory, Indian women in golden saris held aloft incense, trays of petals and water bowls with floating candles as they drifted onto the stage, past cardinals in scarlet and bishops in purple. Prayers were read in half a dozen or more languages, including Bengali, Albanian and Arabic.
In front-row seats were a queen, princes, presidents and diplomats. Seated next to them were about 2,000 homeless people rounded up from shelters, their attendance meant as homage to Mother Teresa's work. After the ceremony, members of Mother Teresa's order celebrated their patron's new status by inviting the homeless to a hot lunch.
Among the official guests were delegations from Albania and Macedonia, including Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Mother Teresa was born to an ethnic Albanian mother in the Balkan city of Skopje, which today is the capital of Macedonia. The two groups, ethnic rivals in the Balkans, have been spatting over who has greater claim to the nun.
In his homily, read by other priests, the pope said Mother Teresa had taken the "road that Jesus Christ walked" by seeking out "an itinerary of love and service" and self-sacrifice on behalf of the downtrodden.
"As a real mother to the poor, she bent down to those suffering various forms of poverty," he said. "Her life was a radical living and a bold proclamation of the Gospel."
In yesterday's 2 1/2 -hour Mass, Pope John Paul was also presented with "relics" of Mother Teresa, specifically a cotton swab soaked in her blood and encased in a wooden and glass box. In addition to the move toward sainthood, beatification makes public veneration permissible, and the relic will go on display this week in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
The enormous crowd erupted in cheers when a portrait of Mother Teresa was unveiled, showing her smiling face looking upward, hands clasped.
The pope's sermon was an unusually personal recollection of the "courageous woman" he said he felt was so often at his side.
As his health fails, Pope John Paul, who is 83 and has Parkinson's disease, has increasingly turned over the reading of portions of his homilies and speeches to aides. He normally reads the opening and closing passages.
The pope is eager to be able to move Mother Teresa in line for sainthood before his death. He waived the five-year waiting period usually required before launching a campaign for beatification after the candidate's death.
One miracle had to be authenticated by the Vatican for beatification, and now a second miracle must occur and be documented for Mother Teresa's final elevation to sainthood.
Mother Teresa, who was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in 1910 and died at age 87, founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 with 12 nuns. It has more than 4,500 sisters today, has added a branch for priests and brothers, and has chapters in 133 countries running hospices, schools and orphanages. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
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