BY WIM ROEFS
Few people realize that by the time the young women in the Miss America beauty pageant parade for your pleasure every September in Atlantic City, they are already running for sainthood.
Hell, they are already being considered for the ultimate papal pat on the back when they qualify for their local Miss Pumpernickel pageant, the first step on the interstate to New Jersey. For obvious reasons concerning appropriate modesty becoming of those who organize sainthood trials and perhaps to avoid a backlash from angry male wannabe saints this crucial little detail of beauty pageantry has so far gone unreported.
Instead, you are made to believe that it is all about poise and grace. No way, Saint Jose.
Take the following quote. What is sought "is not a faultless or sinless life, but a passionate and single-minded dedication to prayer and good works that makes this person an exemplary model of heroic virtue in some respect."
In it you can recognize the average Miss America contestant an amazing gracer professing to be a Christian, striving to be a role model, single-mindedly pursuing a worthy cause and turning virtuousity into an art form. Only, the quote doesn't come out of a Miss America brochure but from The Modem Catholic Encyclopedia: "What the church looks for in venerating a saint is not . . .etc."
What does come out of the Miss America organization is the contract that every contestant on any level of competition signs. Through it we learn that they are indeed a female and always have been a female, and that they have never been pregnant, married or divorced, or have "cohabited with a male in lieu of a marriage contracts and "have not been involved in any act of moral turpitude" or committed "any act or engaged in any activity which is or could be characterized as dishonest, immoral, immodest, indecent, or in bad taste."
Note that it seems tougher to qualify for Miss America pageants than for sainthood. This is easily explained. The pageant people have obviously raised the bar so that not every girl-next-door thinks she could be a saint in the 'hood.
That some 80,000 young women still sign the pageant contract every year has no doubt a lot to do with the perks of pre-sainthood. For one, St. Peter will probably not give you a lot of grief at the gate. And if you turn out to be true saint material, there are the postmortem birthday parties that Roman-Catholic and Eastern Orthodox folks throw you. In fact, counting All Saints Day, they'll throw you two.
That there are sainthood trials for women only is also easily explained it's an affirmative action program. The Pope, his Eastern Orthodox colleague and many saint-loving Protestants looked at the male-dominated roster of saints and saw it was not good. And so pageant organizers will invariably tell you they work to advance the career of the young women, who, after all, have much fewer opportunities in life than men.
I used to be suspicious of such talk. The pageant people didn't strike me as the emphatic, economic equality-enforcing kind. The pious smiles that accompany their claims of female career advancement didn't help either. I wondered whether pageant loyalists knew something I didn't know. They did.
Now that I, too, know what is really at stake, some other cryptic aspects of Miss America are crystal clear as well. I suddenly understand why, for instance, pageant folks can maintain that looks are unimportant." Well, they are unimportant - Mother Theresa's raisin face will certainly not jeopardize her shot at sainthood.
Also, with sainthood in mind I understand why "every contestant's a winner" even though most of them perform a song-and-dance suicide routine from which not even their admirable plans for world peace or preventing disease can resurrect them.
The quest for sainthood explains why these 80,000 Miss America participants spend tens of millions of dollars to compete for a meager $5 million in scholarships a year. Good money management it isn't, but single-minded dedication it is.
And strutting your stuff is certainly immodest and would, on an earthly level, be a breach of the Miss America contract. Within the saintly scheme of things it is, however, no big deal, as Mary Magdalene showed. And, again, it isn't the church that is looking for perfection.
Wim Roefs is a freelance writer who lives in Columbia.