More than a candle in the wind
IT WAS A HEAVY WEEK FOR THE WORLD—the death first of Princess Diana and then of Mother Teresa. One has been transformed in death to a larger-than-life princess, the photogenic Rorschach who becomes whomever we need her to be, while the death of the world's most famous nun has already sparked agitation for speeding up formal canonization proceedings.
And while millions of British mourned and millions of Catholics mourned and many more took a voyeuristic or bemused interest in these deaths, their funereal rituals, and their nexus, I thought of another death, one noticed neither by the paparazzi nor the Vatican. I think of Mev Puleo, my late wife.
Since everybody else is expected to have some emotional reaction to Princess Di's demise (and, to a much lesser degree, Mother Teresa's), I am all too happy to add my two cents, as I have undergone what many might agree is a most excruciating loss: that of a beloved wife, soul mate, best friend, partner, and companera, who in January 1996 died from a brain tumor at the age of 32.
So here are a few musings from a widower who pondered all the hoopla over the passing of rich and famous celebrities.
Like Princess Diana, my wife was a child of privilege, although a distinctly American kind. Her Sicilian father lived the immigrant rags-to-riches story, and her mother nurtured her and her siblings and gave them wonderful opportunities about which most of the world can only dream—vacations spent traveling internationally, excellent schooling, and a comfortable home environment. Mev got off to a good start, fast.
Like Mother Teresa, Mev was a daughter of the church. She went to Catholic schools for 20 years, went through a Catholic charismatic phase in her teens, read the Bible every day from her teen years until the age of 26, and had even thought of becoming a lay celibate like Dorothy Day. Mev was as Catholic as we come.
Unlike Princess Di, Mev did not marry a prince, nor did she hang out with a chic and powerful crowd. On the contrary, she was a befriender to Third World nobodies and an ally to the persecuted.
As a photographer, she pursued projects in Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, and El Salvador, where she documented the lives of people struggling for land, life, and justice. Unlike the paparazzi piranha, Mev would not begin to take photographs until she had gotten to know the people in a particular community. She was very careful to become acquainted with the Catholic missionaries in a village, who would then gradually introduce her.
From the first time I met her at the Maryknoll School of Theology in 1988, Mev was concerned not to be a voice for the voiceless poor—"they can speak for themselves!"—but to provide a means for their voices to reach our ears. Mev went to the places—prisons, slums, Amazon jungles—that we all too quickly consign to the dustbins of amnesia.
Unlike Mother Teresa, the saint who cared for the dying, Mev was an unabashed advocate of liberation theology, the ecclesial practice of opting for justice (not simply charity) for and with the poor. Like Mother Teresa (constantly) and like Diana (occasionally), Mev stood among those destitute and demeaned, but she also asked pointed questions about why these people were suffering. Mev's photographs surely pointed to the misery in people's lives, but she was not a proponent of cheap charity; for example, she practiced and encouraged U.S. solidarity with the Haitian people in their valiant pursuit of democracy.
For a wedding present, a friend gave us a poster with these words from Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara: "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a Communist." Mev admired Mother Teresa's indefatigability, but she followed in Dom Helder's footsteps.
I have my own small glimpse into the de trop celebrity that has surrounded Diana after her death, for I vividly remember at Mev's wake how many people told her mother and me, "Your wife was a saint!" or "Your daughter was such a saint; I know she is in heaven." My mother-in-law and I would look at each other, a little baffled and grateful, and we'd simply say, "She was the most wonderful wife," or "She was a lovely daughter." Of course, people meant well, as did the throngs in London, but such meaning-well can so easily obscure the wonderful complexity and stinging challenge of those whom we would rather canonize.
Several years ago, a friend in graduate school wrote an essay about the Catholic Church and American culture.
He showed me his paper, and I was most interested in the question he raised at the end: "Is the only choice that between Mother Angelica and Madonna?" In other words, what's the alternative between a repressed, dour, finger-pointing Catholicism and a flaming, salacious, crotch-grabbing rebellion? Between an old-fashioned, rigid, preconciliar Catholicism and a hedonistic self-promotion of American capitalism?
An alternative to Mother Angelica and Madonna? Dear reader, you can guess my answer—Mev.
She was a woman who fingered her rosary beads each night, not to recite the Hail Marys she had once prayed as a teenager but to count out that day's number of people, events, and moments for which she was grateful until she fell asleep. She was a women of privilege who used her education and social connections to call our attention to the way Third World people have been oppressed by U.S. military intervention, stringent economic policies, and political manipulation.
While a master of ceremonies at the 1993 Denver World Youth Day, Mev expressed a few choice words to Pope John Paul II about the Haitian poor and women's dignity. U.S. Catholic magazine presented her its 1995 award for furthering the cause of women in the church. And Mev drew sustenance from other courageous and spirited women, like the Brazilian theologian Sister Ivone Gebara and Ann Manganaro, a Sister of Loretto who worked in war-ravaged El Salvador. Both Mother Angelica and Madonna could have learned a lot from Mev.
In her hospitality and joie de vivre, Mev exemplified William Blake's proverb "Exuberance is beauty." But she also had a great capacity for righteous indignation and refused to pursue the path of upward climbing, self-regard, and the "good life" of thoughtless consumption.
Of course, I am biased in this judgment, and I do not apologize for it. But count this recollection of my wife, Mev, as one small act of nonviolent resistance to the mania and frenzy unleashed by Diana's death. There are plenty of role models like Mev—ordinary women, neighbors, mothers, and wives—right around us, if we can but turn away from our televisions and National Enquirers long enough to notice how such women embody a healing gentleness and justice in our world, far from the madding crowd.
Mark Chmiel is adjunct professor of theology at St. Louis University.All active news articles