The Voice of Mother Angelica

Authored By: Raymond T. Gawronski

The Voice of Mother Angelica

by Raymond T. Gawronski

" (Luke 10:21).

The name of Mother Angelica is in the air nowadays. Some months ago, during a Christmas visit north of Schenectady, a man I met at a dinner sang her praises. An Italian ethnic, first-generation college educated family man now in his early 40s, he lit up at mention of her name, and said sure, he watches her. He can relate to her and finds what she has to say good. He added that he has never quite trusted the Protestant evangelists, not even Billy Graham. It must be their style. Too different.

In New Jersey I watched the Polish evening news from Warsaw last Christmas day on cable television: sure enough, a report on Mother Angelica. An "item," Mother Angelica had just appeared in the "New Faces" section of People magazine (as far as I can tell, she is the only face not selling itself somehow--her eyes in the photo are cast resolutely heavenward). The Polish reporter stated: Even though most American Catholics are dissidents from Rome, Mother Angelica follows the orthodox line on abortion, the ordination of women, etc. Interestingly, the Polish report showed her and her staff praying before she goes on stage. The report focused on her talk show, "Mother Angelica Live," but failed to indicate the nature of the rest of the round-the-clock programming her network offers.

I had heard of her while living in Europe, but never watched her on visits to the States because my family never got cable television, and because, when staying in Jesuit houses with it, I could never figure out how to operate all those remote controls.

She was already a figure of mildly mythic proportions when "the great blow-up" occurred. I was there when it happened, right there in Mile High Stadium during the Pope's visit to Denver. I guess I had become uncomfortable when some Politically Correct material began to appear on the screens, beamed at the thousands of young people there, a certain sort of report from Latin America. Then there were some American feminist lines from a young woman. Oh well, I reasoned, it takes all kinds: diversity, patience. But when the Way of the Cross began, I thought I saw a female figure representing Christ. I asked my companions if they saw the same. Yes, little by little they agreed, this is not a man representing Christ Jesus: It is a woman, about to carry the Cross.

My mind dragged back to a Protestant school of theology in Berkeley which had held ceremonies around the image of a crucified woman, "Christa," amid a strange assortment of bitter women in Birkenstocks and weak men tailing along. I knew something was fishy about this "female Christ" then, something wrong. Now, in Denver, I looked at the program, at the list of names of people involved in planning this particular evening, and I encountered names I had run across, names involved in ecclesiastical power politics in the Washington, D.C., establishment.

I left the stadium feeling a little sick a little sad, for I knew that certain ecclesiastical politicians had scored another victory. I left the stadium quietly. I was not florid, nor agitated. I had been this route so many times before. Manipulation and politics in the Church seem inevitable. But they remain disedifying. Recalling that poet Robinson Jeffers wrote that when corruption takes the cities there are always the mountains, I walked out of the stadium and said a rosary under the stars in the parking lot, wondering what the Lord of the Universe made of this display. I bought a Dr. Pepper and talked to some bus drivers.

When I returned to my community in Milwaukee, I heard that Mother Angelica had taken the field with prophetic fury: that she had "gone ballistic" on television. She had had enough: She had watched them-- the theological liberals--for years, and now she (correctly, I was sure) saw their nefarious hand behind this latest outrage. I did not yet know how to jockey the remote controls to educe her image on the screen, but I knew then that I loved this woman of God. Perhaps she was occasionally red in the face, not cool; perhaps she let her outrage be known to all and sundry. Displays of emotion are totally uncool in our bourgeois world: Someone who is labeled "angry" is destined for therapy or perdition or both. But I praised God, for I knew that Heaven had heard an unspoken prayer for justice--that rare thing Our Lord has promised to those who must, for awhile, hunger and thirst for it.

We have been blessed with others on this continent, in our century: strong women of God who have made the establishment uncomfortable. Dorothy Day, Catherine de Hueck Doherty. It is our shame as males to have produced so few. I suspect most of us are destroyed early on by the team spirit that crushes independence and plays to our male "bonding" instincts. No matter I am coming to believe God has raised up a prophet for us in our time and place, and her name is Angelica.

Funny: There are official prophets galore. There is no dearth of studies and seminars on women in the Church rebuking Pontiffs in the Middle Ages, full of intimation that it is the task of the prophet always to rebuke--the Pontiff! But the saints spoke in the name of Christ, on mission from Him: The problem is that the voices which have of late been heralded as "prophetic" seem generally to take their inspiration from the editorial pages of The New York Times. Actually, it is our poor Pope who is the voice crying in the wilderness, an ascetic begging others to return to Christ.

What makes Mother Angelica so appealing to many? In no small part it is because she is the voice of the little guy, people who have been held in contempt in their Church for at least 30 years. She is not part of the ruling elite, nor has she chosen to be identified with it. She often makes reference in her shows to her Italian parentage. She was born and raised in today's "Rust Belt." That background makes her part of the large group of late Catholic immigrants who were alienated in the older "American" Church and never quite found their place in it, and thus are perhaps freer than others to have the critical distance needed for true discernment.

Put differently, her audience, like her style, seems to be largely blue-collar. They are the "second world" of the American Catholic Church: those who have been lost between the children of the old Catholic immigrations who are largely culturally assimilated and the official "minorities" with which the Catholic establishment, taking its lead from the secular cultural elite, has been preoccupied.

These cultural and economic differences are seen very clearly in opposing attitudes toward Catholic piety. At a public lecture not too long ago, I heard an American prelate pour contempt on Catholics who are concerned about keeping kneelers in their churches; he then held the "polka Mass" up to scorn as a symbol of that sort of popularism that afflicts the Church liturgically. In the same talk the prelate let slip a boast of his northwestern European ancestry. There are plenty of Catholics who are concerned about what has been happening to their Church (who also have little time for polka Masses), but who feel as powerless and alienated in the Church as they do in their country: In both cases national elites make decisions from which they are by and large excluded. This is an experience of Catholics of all cultural backgrounds, to be sure, even as the elite counts members of all backgrounds. But still, the devotional traditions of southern and eastern Europeans have largely been lost in the postconciliar "American Church."

That the devotions of common people should have been lost is no coincidence. Friedrich Heer has written that "the real problem" is that in "all questions of dogma the pressure of the superstitious masses played an important role. [Karl] Rahner pleads with modern theologians to work against this 'popular' form of piety...." Here we are near the heart of why Mother Angelica is despised by members of the elite and loved by the alienated: She represents the "superstitious masses"--peasants, as in the Polish "peasant Pope"-- who have so embarrassed the assimilationist intellectual leadership of the American Church for so long. Of course, it is not superstition, but simple piety, that is the issue.

A young layman recently interrupted dinner to invite a brother Jesuit and myself to watch "Mother Angelica Live." When I asked him what about her so appeals to him, he said one thing: devotion. Others have pointed out that since the Council, popular piety has all but disappeared from our Church. If Friedrich Heer is right, the dominant forces behind the "renewal" of the Church have been dead set against popular piety having any input in the significant decisions of the Church. Mother Angelica is frankly pious, though in a no-nonsense way which is refreshingly American.

Of course, no one is claiming Mother Angelica is flawless. She is certainly strong-minded, but then in our feminist age this should be no sin. What makes her winning to many of us is that no matter what she says, no matter how her show goes, sooner or later her unabashed love for the Lord Jesus comes through. Yes, this is piety, and it is impossible for me to imagine a living faith without it. This much must be noted: She manages at some point in every show to lead her questioner to the love of God for him.

She herself appears only a few hours a week. Her television programming is round the clock, broadcast now to dozens of countries, in English and Spanish. In general, the shows attempt to weave piety into a theological re-education in which the traditional Catholic faith can find expression. The shows on her Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) are generally surprisingly sophisticated in presentation. So the rosary--which could have just featured some pious souls droning on--is prayed with rich visual color, oftentimes with an educational approach.

For the first time since Bishop Sheen, then, there is a strong and clear Catholic presence regularly available on the screen. Thanks to Mother Angelica-- and to her alone--millions of people were able to watch the Holy Father "live" during his recent visit to the East Coast. Not the brief reports by a medium which even when friendly insist on treating the Catholic Church as somehow more alien to American life than Tibetan Buddhism. Watching EWTN, one saw the Vicar of Christ fly into Newark Airport--not JFK--and speak to the thousands who braved a fierce rain in Giants' Stadium in the Jersey Meadows to pray with him. Watching their faces, I saw the people one sees in Mother Angelica's studio audience: the patient, hard-working, sacrificing family people who make up that ethnic symphony that drew Dorothy Day into the Church.

I submit that in Mother Angelica we have, for the second time in recent memory, seen God's justice dramatically effected in this world. Mother Angelica is like our Pope She came out of nowhere. He came from Poland, that backward province of Christendom which, having most recently been betrayed by Hitler and Stalin, was made the laughingstock of the American media while its faithful stumbled along a decades long Way of the Cross. Reread the prognostications of the pundits before the last papal election to understand the blindness of our media guides. Mother Angelica lives in Alabama, in the despised South, but her accent, her style is that of the ethnic Northeast of a former generation, those people who manned factories and mines and who left behind beautiful churches and then culturally disappeared, while their progeny now fill lesser positions in the Rust Belt or have themselves been dispersed in housing tracts in the Southwest. It is perfect that she broadcasts from Irondale, Alabama, and not Manhattan.

She speaks for and to those who have had their public worship "hijacked" from them (and whose pathetic phone calls to her indicate that their sense of helplessness in the face of governing elites remains unabated). She speaks for and to those who wonder what has happened to their children: those heartbroken parents who come to priests in tears and say, "Father, we sacrificed to send our children to Catholic schools all the way through and they don't know the Faith, and they have left it." And leave it they have, often to become pious evangelical Protestants.

She is so threatening that one churchman has been heard to ask something like: "Who will rid me of this meddlesome nun?" Perhaps she will yet be gotten off television somehow, though I doubt it: The very rocks themselves will cry out (and besides she is now on short wave radio).

She has rough edges. I'm not at all sure we would get along, but that's unimportant. In a way, she has the vitality, brashness, and independence of outlook of a simpler America, before it yielded to the iron hand of the PC establishment. She evidences little theological sophistication. That is not her mission. She is a strong, steady voice in a dark media maelstrom, and as such should be welcomed by all who would see the world evangelized.

Of late a story has made the rounds that a very powerful member of the national Catholic bureaucracy offered to buy her station, but the 70-year-old contemplative nun in leg braces replied to the churchman: "I'd blow it up first." True or not, it's the sort of story that brings a smile to the lips of her fans and speaks volumes about what is going on. It's the stuff of saints, those whom God sends to His world and, yes, to His Church on uncomfortable missions: All they have to do is say "yes" and He Who is mighty does the rest. Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen must be proud of her. For God, in His mysterious ways and times, puts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. In this one old woman--"your third grade nun," as she has been described--God has put the Catholic faith into the American media in a way that has eluded the national Catholic bureaucracy. And He has given a voice to the voiceless, as He has done since the beginning of the Good News. Mirabile dictu: "Let him who has ears to hear, hear."

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The Rev. Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J., is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Marquette, and author of "Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West.> He has recently learned how to operate cable television, and also listens to Mother Angelica on the radio.

This article was taken from the April 1996 issue of the "New Oxford Review". For subscription information please write: New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706, 510-526-5374. Published monthly except for combined January-February and July-August issues. Subscriptions are $19.00 for one year.

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN

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