Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died within a few days of each other. What can we learn from their lives and legacies? Heather Tomlinson explains


It’s 20 years since that extraordinary day when we woke up to discover that Princess Diana had died.

If you’re over 25, or possibly even younger, and you were in the UK, you’ll remember it clearly. You’ll remember the days of grief, the acres of flowers, the oceans of tears and the blanket TV coverage.

What’s less well remembered, is that a few days after Diana’s death, another international star of a different kind died, too. Mother Theresa passed away on the 7th September 1997.

In some ways, the women were so similar. Both were super-famous. Both were known for their compassion and their charity work; both unafraid to be political when they chose to do so, though in very different ways. Both were almost universally loved and cherished by the public.

And yet, they were so very, very different. One was a woman who took Jesus’ teachings very seriously – she owned few belongings (though she did oversee large influxes of charitable funds), practised celibacy, wore the same plain cotton sari wherever she went, encouraged her sisters to pray fervently, spoke against abortion but rarely criticised any individual.

Diana was better known for her relationships – both the pain of her unhappy marriage and the other affairs – but perhaps mostly for her glamour and her physical beauty, as well as her compelling charismatic personality, her difficulties with the Royal Family, and her drive to support a wide variety of charitable causes.

Given both women had done so much compassionate work in the public eye, why was it that Diana stole people’s hearts so much more powerfully?

Mother Teresa was a life devoted to Jesus Christ, at least as much as a person can be when that famous. She wasn’t perfect, and her diaries suggest that her spiritual path was a difficult one. However she took Jesus’ teachings very seriously, and sought to follow what he taught, even if she could not always feel his presence.

Diana was more of a saint of the late 20th century culture: beautiful, rich and glamorous, while also practicing compassion and charitable work. This compromise fitted more with our materialistic but still quasi-Christian sentiments at the time. Songs of Praise recently argued that Diana had more of a Christian faith than many thought; but its language of having 'Christian values' suggests it wasn’t necessarily a living faith as evangelical Christians would understand it. It’s worth pondering that 20 years later, our country’s culture has shifted so much that even having those basic Christian values would not necessarily be seen in a positive way – I wonder how Diana would have interpreted herself in our current zeitgeist?

Perhaps the biggest difference is motivation. Diana said she wanted to be Queen of our hearts, and given that she experienced a lot of rejection and difficulty, we can perhaps understand this motivation from a human point of view. What Mother Theresa would have preferred, certainly at the beginning of her missionary work, is that we made Jesus the king of our hearts. It seems Diana got her wish, judging by the outpouring of sentiment at her death; while Mother Theresa is yet to see her hope come to fruition, in her adopted home of Calcutta or in most parts of the world. The Catholic nun’s goal doesn’t always make you popular – though she was relatively beloved and respected for a famous Christian – perhaps more so than was helpful?

Teresa has been made a Saint by the Catholic Church, but Diana was made a Saint for modern Britain. Which one should we seek to emulate?