Leaving aside the popes, the person who has served as the public face of
the Church in the United States for the past two decades is a little,
crippled, chronically ill, old Italian-American lady who chats with
Jesus daily, used to speak in tongues, and leaps before she looks. As I
write this, she is quite ill, and we can't predict how long she will be
with us. But the global media empire planted by this contemplative Poor
Clare has put down mighty roots, with millions of viewers who love its
dogged loyalty to the teachings of the Church. Indeed, in large swathes
of the country where parishes have either closed or turned de facto
Methodist, EWTN's broadcasts serve the isolated faithful like Allied
broadcasts into Occupied Europe.
Given the crisis of faith of the 1970s and 1980s, building EWTN
sometimes meant flouting the power of worldly bishops who'd learned more
than golf tricks from their liberal Protestant colleagues. Indeed, too
many clerics had soaked in the pastel, fuzzy uplift that for "mainline"
denominations has largely replaced the Faith. By building without these
gray men's by-your-leave a media operation that reached millions of the
most devout and generous Catholics in the country, Mother Angelica did
an end-run around the bureaucratic institutions that modernists had
and built an enduring bridge between ordinary believers and the teaching
office of Peter.
Born Rita Antoinette Rizzo to a fragile, fashionable mother and a
worthless tom-catting father, she grew up desperately poor in a
Mafia-infested Canton, Ohio. John Rizzo left her mother to fend for
herself while Rita was still a toddler
an abandonment from which Mrs. Mae Rizzo would never recover. (She would
end up becoming the single most crochety nun in Mother Angelica's own
community.) Marital meltdown wasn't taken for granted back then the way
it is now; indeed, at my own Catholic school in the 1970s in New York,
we all knew the one kid whose parents had gotten . . . divorced. And we
felt bad for him
pity he flouted by learning to fistfight and becoming the neighborhood's
best garage-band drummer. He kicked my butt more than once. (He was also
Italian.) But I digress.
Or perhaps I don't. On a natural level, it just may have been the
vicious scorn Pharisaical nuns poured on Rita in school for her father's
sins and the sight of her mother slaving at odd jobs in the Depression
that made Rita so beatifically implacable. Out of place at school,
treated sternly by her mother's disappointed family, and afflicted with
chronic abdominal pain that forced her as a teenager to wear a corset,
Rita developed a rich inner life that more than made up for missing the
Lindy Hop. Having heard of a home-bound lay mystic, Rhoda Wise, who bore
the stigmata, Rita befriended her
behavior that wasn't, in the 1940s, typical for a Midwestern teenager.
Wises intercessory prayer led to the cure of Rita's debilitating
illness and launched her on the road to a religious vocation. Scornful
of the fidelity that men seemed to offer, Rita didn't get out much. As
she told her biographer and longtime collaborator Raymond Arroyo: "I was
never a sexpot, and I never wanted a date. Sexually, I'm a eunuch. I
could care less. It's just not my bag." (You can read Arroyo's moving,
candid account of her life and struggles in his book Mother Angelica:
The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles.)
Lest she sound frigid as opposed to chaste, Arroyo records the torrid,
Mediterranean love affair of the adolescent Rita with the One she would
eventually come to call her Spouse. After slogging through high school
with middling grades, she went to work at Timken Roller Bearing Company,
where she began introducing her true Love to others. There, Arroyo
writes, a picture of Jesus impaled by a crown of thorns sat on the edge
of Rita's desk. When accused by a co-worker of "pushing her religion,"
Rita responded, "If you have a picture of a movie star or someone you
love, you put it out there. Well, this is my love, and it's going to
Soon Rita realized she wished to wed the Man she loved. She applied to a
strict Franciscan contemplative community
and persevered despite a long list of obstacles that ranged from her
rebellious personality to chronic knee pain that made it excruciating
for her to join in communal prayer. (Mother Angelica would later write
that in the convent her knees were like "two puffy water-filled
grapefruit.") On Nov. 8, 1945, Rita Rizzo took her first vows as a
religious, marking the occasion with a letter to her mother that reads
like a wedding invitation.
Angelica would carry that conjugal conviction through the decades,
living with an almost constant sense that Christ was her faithful,
high-maintenance spouse. Intense reading in spiritual authors like St.
Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Brother Lawrence of the
Resurrection helped Sister Angelica school herself in radical trust.
What's puzzling to us worldly folks is that this trust would only grow
stronger in the face of suffering and disappointment. In an incident
that Mother Angelica has retold hundreds of times to live and televised
audiences, the young nun was cleaning the monastery floor with an
unwieldy electronic polisher when the contraption got out of control
injuring her so seriously that she would eventually need a full body
cast and weeks of traction. No treatments helped very much, and Mother
Angelica was left with chronic numbness and back pain, forced to wear a
back brace just to get around.
Her response to this crippling event? She decided to found another
monastery. For some time, sisters in her community had talked of
creating an abbey that would pray for and minister to black Americans
whose civil-rights activists were then being murdered and churches were
being bombed. But no concrete plans had been made. So in her hospital
bed, with no prospect of ever walking normally, Mother Angelica offered
her Spouse what she calls her "outrageous bargain." Arroyo cites a
letter she later wrote that laid it out:
A year ago when the doctors were doubtful that I would walk again, I
turned to our Lord and promised that if he would grant me the grace to
walk, I would do all in my power to promote a cloistered community among
the Negroes. It would be dedicated to the Negro Apostolate by prayer,
adoration, sacrifice, and union with God. It would ceaselessly make
reparation for all the insults and persecutions the Negro race suffers
and implore God's blessings and graces upon a people dear to the Heart
While her healing was slow and incomplete, Mother Angelica didn't wait
around to see if Christ was keeping up His end. With permission from her
superior, she gathered other willing nuns to take up this unlikely
mission with her in some hostile zone of the Bible Belt
finally settling on an area just outside of Birmingham, Alabama.
Ironically, fear of actual violence would lead the new community to keep
its mission of racial reparation a closely guarded secret. In the long
run, the nuns would end up serving another persecuted minority
faithful American Catholics.
Selected to head the new community, Mother Angelica would raise the
money to build it and keep it running through a wide array of holy
from marketing fishing lures to Protestant anglers with promises of
blessings from St. Peter, to roasting peanuts whose "nun-appeal" made
them novelties at ballparks. In the end, the only reason the
self-educated Angelica started writing books and recording religious
tapes was to raise much-needed funds for her abbey. The popularity and
profitability of the tapes soon led her to television, which she
instantly grasped was the tool needed to "reach the masses." That was
when her moxie came out. As Arroyo tells it:
When the local station she contracted to film her video series decided
to air a movie denying the resurrection of Christ, Mother . . . blew her
top. She insisted that the station drop the movie, or she would walk.
The station manager got nasty, threatening that she'd "be off television
permanently" if she left. "I don't need you, I only need God," Mother
fired back. "I will build my own studio, buy my own cameras, and tape my
Coming from anyone else, this might have been a peevish boast, or empty
threat. But Mother Angelica had come to see a pattern in her life: Faced
with grinding pain and apparent futility, she would always respond with
several steps, in this order:
1. Ask God His will in prayer.
2. Once she knew it, throw caution to the wind and trust that He would
make her efforts fruitful.
3. Work like a madwoman, wheedling support from the uncertain and
shunting aside doubters and dissenters who got in her way.
4. Rinse, repeat.
In other words, Mother Angelica would follow the Ignatian dictum to
"pray as if all depended on God, and work as if all depended on you."
While some tenured Jesuits may resent what Mother Angelica has said over
the decades on her talk show
and she's not one for undue tact
they must appreciate how well she lives out this charism.
The source of Mother Angelica's Olympic-level diligence was the fiercely
protective love a woman bears her husband
especially when he suffers innocently for others. She couldn't bear to
see her Beloved mocked, and she wouldn't stand idly by. So when that
network flippantly questioned the Resurrection, she did found her own
network. When U.S. bishops greeted a visit of Pope John Paul II with a
show that featured Christ as a female mime, she stopped accepting their
programming, despite their string-pulling and threats. When Roger
Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles issued a pastoral letter she thought
watered down the Real Presence, she critiqued him, point-by-point, on
and refused to offer a false apology, even when Cardinal
Mahony's machinations got her threatened with interdict (the loss of the
Sacraments) and the closure of her community. When still other bishops
tried to gain control of EWTN and stifle her loudly orthodox voice, she
famously said, "I'll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on
it." Her eyes always focused on the eyes of her Beloved, she was almost
blind to the worldly obstacles thrown in her way. She stepped right over
Mother Angelica has flouted powerful men, the conventional wisdom, and
the voice of prudence so many times that for her it's almost routine.
Her intimate contact with Christ has helped her to keep, in the midst of
outrageous success and mounting power, the simplicity of her founders
Francis and Clare. What drew her to those saints, Mother Angelica has
said, was "their absolute dependence on the providence of God. They saw
him in all. And what they undertook was not planned by them, but through
their love and detachment they fit into whatever was happening in the
It takes a broadly Catholic imagination to see the strand connecting the
threadbare life of St. Francis to the basilicas, hospitals, and colleges
built in his name. Likewise we won't know till Judgment Day how many
conversions, "reversions," vocations, and deepened lives of faith can be
traced to Mother Angelica's influence. And that's just as well, since
she'd never take the credit, attributing all her successes to Providence
rather than personality. That said, it helped that Mother Angelica knew
how to hornswoggle Baptists into laying free pipe for nuns, to charm the
socks off jaded cable-TV execs, bend the ears of visiting cardinals, and
impress the pope. She worked without ceasing, except to pray. It's hard
to imagine that she will ever rest, even in Heaven. Perhaps those with
really high-end satellite dishes will someday be able to tune into
"Eternal Life with Mother Angelica."
InsideCatholic.com 11/18/09. Used with permission.