Mother Angelica’s Triumph

MotherAngelicaSquareOn Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, Mother Angelica passed away after a long battle with the effects of a stroke she suffered in 2001. In tribute, we are republishing a brief version of a piece that first appeared in Crisis magazine.

Mark Belnick was a 50-year-old Wall Street lawyer living in wealthy Westchester County, New York, when Mother Angelica reached him in 1997.

One morning he hooked up a cable television in front of his treadmill and was clicking through the channels when he happened upon EWTN—the Eternal World Television Network, founded by Mother Angelica.

“I stopped clicking,” he said.

He became enamored with EWTN. “I could have watched EWTN all day. I was eager to learn more and more.”

He was Jewish when he plugged that television in. He’s Catholic now.

Heather Gaitley was 22, living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, when Mother Angelica reached her in 1993. She had hit a low point and wanted to pull away from the destruction of the bohemian lifestyle she was immersed in.

So she watched EWTN. “I literally would watch it and would just be blown away because it was this faith that I knew I wanted but which I had no knowledge or practical experience of. When I was in it, I wasn’t catechized.” Now, she couldn’t learn fast enough. “I watched Mother Angelica probably all day sometimes,” she said.

Everyone at EWTN has a favorite story. There was the guy who clicked onto EWTN because a pornography network shared the same channel number. When he saw full habits instead of flesh, he tried to change the channel. For some reason, he couldn’t. So he watched. Cancer patients, Playboy bunnies, secret Christians in non-Christian countries who watch online—stacks of their stories come in to EWTN each day.

Rhoda the Stigmatist

The ingredients of Mother Angelica’s life seem unlikely to produce a Catholic television mogul—or a committed Catholic of any kind, for that matter. Rita Rizzo (her name before she entered the convent) was abandoned by her father as an infant and had to be the adult in the poverty-stricken life she shared with her bitter and sometimes hysterical mother. Rita’s Catholic relatives didn’t exactly rally to her mother’s aid when her father left, and she had too many cold encounters with nuns in school who were rude to her because she was the child of divorce (“I hated them,” she told Arroyo).

Fending for herself and caring for her mother, Rita grew up to become the primary breadwinner of her truncated family—only to be struck with a stomach ailment that left her in severe pain and in bed much of the time. If she thought of God at all, it was with resentment.

But her life took a dramatic turn when she met up with a stigmatist named Rhoda Wise who lived near the city dump. Wise led a doubting Rita in a novena to the Little Flower. At the end of the seven days of prayer, her stomach ailment disappeared. Wise became her tutor in the Catholic faith. The text for her lessons: Mary Agreda’s The Mystical City of God.

Thus, the future Mother Angelica informed her faith by reading private revelations, nourished it with novenas and chaplets, and found her inspiration in painted statues and holy cards. It’s a style of Catholicism that, for all its seeming gaudiness, is resilient and imaginative. It’s a faith that is unsurprised by both the miraculous on the one hand and the depths of man’s evil on the other. And it was a perfect fit with the life of Rita Rizzo. She met Christ through this spirituality, fell passionately in love with Him (truly—read the book), and hasn’t left his side since.

It has been hard, though. Her convent experiences sound like the script of The Nun’s Story, the Fred Zinnemann film about the penances and humiliations that lead a young nun to repress her personality, then free herself only by escaping.

But at a point in the story when a nervous, exhausted Audrey Hepburn leaves through the open back door of her convent and disappears into a dawning morning, Sister Angelica blossomed inside the convent walls. She found she had a talent for directing construction projects, an entrepreneurial penchant for fundraising, and a gift for teaching often compared to that of Fulton Sheen.

These are the talents that the former Rita Rizzo gave to God, and that He used to build a media empire.

“I am convinced God is looking for dodos,” she once told Protestant televangelist Jim Bakker. “He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can’t be done, so they don’t do it. But a dodo doesn’t know it can’t be done. God uses dodos: people who are willing to look ridiculous so God can do the miraculous.”

EWTN employees aren’t dodos—but they often have great stories of how they got their jobs.

Mother Everywhere

Michael P. Warsaw, current president of EWTN, was living in Washington, D.C., and working at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception when he sat down with Mother for a “brief chat” that ended hours later with her invitation to “C’mon down!”

In the early days, “Mother was a constant presence” at the studio and in EWTN’s offices, says Warsaw.

Even when Mother Angelica’s monastery moved off the lot to a grand, new location an hour away in Hanceville, and she no longer visited the studio, she was still present.

You see her everywhere you go, gazing out from wall posters, smiling warmly from cards pinned to bulletin boards, sitting like a logo on the front of brochures and pamphlets.

She’s there in the names the staff have given their children. Warsaw happened to have three Mother Angelica books on his desk when I visited.

Mother Angelica oversaw the building of EWTN from a single show to the point where it now offers 24-hour programming, 80 percent of it produced on site, to 104 million homes in 110 countries on cable, satellite, and low-power TV. Before she stepped aside, she personally picked all of the officers who now lead the network.

“Since December 2001 when she had her stroke, EWTN has had its largest single period of growth,” Warsaw told me when I visited. “One of the secrets of EWTN’s success is her constant prayers in front of the Blessed Sacrament.”

Signs and Blunders

In addition to the television and radio stations, EWTN also runs a small print shop. It still puts out the same pamphlets that Mother Angelica’s teaching ministry started with in the early 1970s. She calls them mini-books. Says one of the books, from 1973: “We use the talents we possess to the best of our ability and leave the results to God. We are at peace in the knowledge that he is pleased with our efforts and that his providence will take care of the fruit of those efforts.”

Mother had high hopes for her mini-books. “Give me 10 Jehovah’s Witness–type Catholics and I can change the world,” she said. “Every person should be a missionary. We need to get so excited about our faith that we want to share it with our neighbors. The books and mini-books are mustard seeds. Every housewife, every businessman can be a missionary. Drop a book, drop a leaflet wherever you go. You plant the seed and then the Spirit will take over.”

Back then, a sign in the shop echoed Mother’s core message: “The Master’s Print Shop. We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re getting good at it.”

Suffering With God

In my day spent at EWTN, I began to see that Mother Angelica’s spirituality goes much deeper than the externals.

I heard it first from an accountant when I asked him about the legend that EWTN refuses to use a budget. He didn’t answer directly but noted that the accounting he does is “not a bottom-line approach.” What other kind of accounting is there? “We operate on a model of stewardship,” he said. “We count on the donors to answer God’s call.”

Deacon William Steltemeier elaborated. At the time, he was CEO of EWTN. He died in 2013. “The Lord told Mother, ‘Get it up there and I’ll take care of the rest.’” So Mother got the signal going, and then demurred from grand fundraising schemes, telethons, and the like. She simply asked listeners to “think of us in between your light bill and your gas bill.” And they responded.

“The listeners realized that Mother loved them,” Steltemeier said. “They could see that Mother loves them. The power of the Lord’s love compels us to do what God wants us to do. That’s dynamite stuff.”

Behind the feisty demeanor, pain and suffering, obedience and faith have been the constants in Mother Angelica’s life. It’s as if at each stage of her life, God took a strange pleasure in calling her to do something big, throwing an impossible obstacle in her way, then watching her do it anyway.

When she was trying to be a little girl, she lost her family. When she was trying to be a contemplative nun, she developed a swelling condition in her knees that made it impossible to kneel and almost cost her a place in the convent. Before calling her to lead crews in building an unprecedented monastery in the deep South, she lost the ability to walk in a freak accident.

When she tried to serve the Church with a worldwide cable television network that inspired countless conversions, prominent bishops tried to shut her down. And after she built her own wildly successful talk show into a media empire, she lost her ability to communicate.

The jolly nun who spoke as much with her warm grin and mischievous winks as with her frank words was all but unable to speak in the end.

“He expects me to operate, if I don’t have the money, if I don’t have the brains, if I don’t have the talent—in faith,” she told Arroyo. “You know what faith is? Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air, and a queasy feeling in the stomach.”

Hers is a prime example of the spirituality of suffering that historians will likely use to define the Catholicism of the 20th century, despite so many attempts by Catholics to blaze easier spiritual paths.

One thinks of the stigmatist Padre Pio, whose shrine is the most visited in the world, but whose name is rarely mentioned in homilies. Or Mother Teresa, who spent decades in spiritual darkness. St. Faustina, St. Gianna Molla, Edith Stein—what so many of these modern saints have in common is that their causes were advanced by John Paul II, the suffering pope. Like Mother Angelica, he too lost, his family, then his mobility, then his speech—and left an enormous mark on the world.

People who undergo suffering on this scale are usually crushed by it. But those who accept these blows as ways to commune with God open up channels of grace capable of moving mountains.

Thus, EWTN stands as more than a monument to the charism and powers of one woman—though Mother Angelica’s charismatic powers certainly didn’t hurt.

“EWTN is God’s network,” said Warsaw.

He once asked Mother what her legacy would be. She didn’t mention the number of TV households, the facilities, the radio signals that span the globe, or any of the rest of it. She didn’t mention the conversions people attribute to her work, or the enormous shrine that rises like Assisi’s cathedral in the middle of a Hanceville, Alabama, field. Her legacy? “That all we did in all of this was rely on the Lord’s providence.”

“You want to do something for the Lord?” Mother once asked. “Do it. Whatever you feel needs to be done, even though you’re shaking in your boots, you’re scared to death—take the first step forward. The grace comes with that one step and you get the grace as you step. Being afraid is not a problem; it’s doing nothing when you’re afraid.”

Deacon Steltemeier described her last stage in life, “She prays and suffers for the Church and for the world and for EWTN. That’s all she does. And she’s happy. If you see her you just melt with joy. She’s prayerful, childlike, loving.”

Then he left me with one caution about my article.

“Don’t just talk about the suffering,” he said. “Talk about love. It’s love that bears fruit.”

The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.