Mother Teresa -- not a 'nice' person

It was another day in the Home for the Dying, a year before a 1969 British film that made Mother Teresa the most unlikely of global superstars.

As was her custom, she was taking her turn doing basic chores. Over and over, the tiny nun and a coworker - an Anglican seminarian named Sathi Bunyan - lifted patients off the thin pads on narrow steel-framed cots. Fresh sheets weren't enough. Workers also used this agonizing ritual as a chance to cleanse the sores of those found abandoned along the streets of Calcutta.

"There was one moment that I will never forget," recalled Bunyan, who now serves as a priest in Loveland, Colo. "We were trying to pick up a man whose back was simply covered with sores. This was very hard and, as I lifted his shoulders, my hands slipped and he fell back onto the bed. It was agonizing."

Mother Teresa waited a moment and then prodded her disciple to try again. Her face revealed both compassion and determination. Yes, the man was in pain. Yes, lifting him again, peeling the soiled sheet from his body, and washing his sores, would hurt. But this did not change the fact that this needed to be done, for his sake.

It wasn't that Mother Teresa had no feelings or had become oblivious to suffering. Just the opposite -- she didn't let her feelings prevent her from doing what needed to be done. She washed people's wounds.

"This is what made Mother who she was," said Bunyan, who returned to India four years ago to take part in a celebration of her ministry. "She was not otherworldly. Too often, calling her a saint is just as bad as saying she's crazy. ... It still puts her off in an unreal world of very spiritual people. Then we don't have to take her seriously."

Truth is, Mother Teresa was not a "nice" person in the usual sense of the word. She wasn't trying to be nice. She was trying to be good. But even her goodness had an edge to it. She was as good as a dentist probing decaying teeth, a parent warning a straying child, a priest urging a sinner to repent. She loved people, but she ultimately cared more about souls than feelings.

She did talk about peace and people liked that. They were less interested in her views on the sources of conflict. Mother Teresa, over and over, insisted that abortion was a sign that violence was seeping into all human relationships. When she accepted the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize she bluntly told her hosts: "Abortion is the worst evil in the world."

Years later, she faced America's political establishment at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. Too often, she said, modern parents are too busy to care for their own children or their own marriages. This causes strife, creating poisons that spread into the world and destroy peace. Then abortion teaches people to "use any violence to get what they want," she said.

In one of the defining moments in her life, she turned and looked at President Clinton and Vice President Gore and their wives. "Please don't kill the child," she said. "I want the child. Please give me the child. I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted and to give that child a married couple who will love the child and be loved by the child."

The president responded by praising her "moving words," but added: "We will always have our differences. We will never know the whole truth."

Mother Teresa disagreed. She believed that truth was truth, even if it hurt.

"In a world of doubts and ambiguities and cynicism, she was blessed with certainties, and the certainties that guided her life and her self-sacrifice are ancient, they are noble," said Rep. Henry Hyde, during one of many tributes to Mother Teresa on Capitol Hill. "She believed we are not lost in the stars. ... On the edge of a new century and a new millennium, the world does not lack for icons of evil -- Auschwitz, the gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia, the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. What the world desperately needs are icons of goodness."