Mother Angelica was perhaps the most consequential evangelist, popes excepted, since the Second Vatican Council. Her down-to-earth-manner, wit and willingness to speak plainly endeared her to millions. So did her fierce love for, and zealous defence of, the Church’s teaching and tradition. These same traits won her a devoted following, and some equally devoted adversaries. “If you’re not a thorn in somebody’s side,” she used to say, “you’re not doing Christianity right.”
Force of personality doesn’t explain the miracles that got EWTN off the ground, and kept it afloat, and helped it thrive. Understanding the improbable accomplishments of Mother Angelica, and understanding the tremendous influence she came to exercise in the Church, means throwing out the notion that her life and work were driven by some overarching plan or grand scheme for shaping the future of the Church.
It’s not so much that the plans weren’t grand, it’s that the plans – at least those which have produced such tremendous fruit – weren’t really hers.
The Eternal Word Television Network, which Mother Angelica founded, came into this world in a garage behind a monastery. By the time Mother Angelica died on March 28 of this year – Easter Sunday, as it happens – EWTN was broadcasting in 140 different countries and able to reach more than 250 million households.
The enormous success of EWTN, combined with its independence, caused more than a little friction with the American hierarchy. From the very beginning, Mother Angelica invited bishops to submit material for broadcast, but she retained the final say about what went to air. (Not that she was swamped with requests. At the beginning, her problem wasn’t too much attention from the bishops, but too little.) If a particular show or a particular guest – even an episcopal guest – didn’t meet her standards for fidelity to Church teaching, Mother Angelica would find a way to keep them off the air.
Rarely, this meant rejecting some bishop’s suggestion for programming. More often, programming that didn’t pass muster was simply shelved on a technicality. By the late 1980s, something like one third of the bishops’ suggested programming was being rejected. Mother Angelica had her reasons.
During Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States in 1987, the Holy Father was challenged by several prominent, progressive American bishops on issues including women’s ordination. Mother Angelica was dismayed by the attempt to undermine traditional teaching. As Raymond Arroyo wrote in his excellent biography of Mother Angelica: “If reform-minded bishops felt free to boldly challenge Church teaching in front of the Pope, what might they do before her live cameras?”
When a representative of the bishops called a few months later to encourage Mother Angelica to provide airtime for any and all bishops who requested it, out of deference to their teaching office, she refused in no uncertain terms. The phone call famously ended with Mother Angelica loudly declaring her intention never to relinquish control of the network: “I’ll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on it,” she said.
Many bishops, already wary of the powerful and independent nun, took notice. Another papal visit four years later – this time for World Youth Day in Denver – was the occasion for yet another confrontation between Mother Angelica and the bishops. When the Stations of the Cross were presented by a mime troop with Jesus portrayed by a young woman, Mother Angelica was outraged. The foundress of EWTN understood perfectly well the power of broadcast images, and saw behind the performance a clear and deliberate agenda in support of women’s ordination. Secular media and progressive Catholics saw it, too.
The following day, Mother Angelica opened her show with a long litany of abuses perpetrated by the “liberal Church in America”, which she accused of trying to destroying the Church by undermining the magisterium with an ideological agenda. Again, her remarks did not go unnoticed.
Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee – one of the progressive bishops whose remarks had so upset Mother Angelica during the 1987 papal visit, and a man whose episcopal career would end in scandal and disgrace – wrote a scathing comment article in which he called Mother Angelica’s response to the Stations controversy “one of the most disgraceful, un-Christian, offensive, and divisive diatribes I have ever heard.”
The Denver fiasco was something of a watershed for Mother Angelica and EWTN. While some bishops who supported her thought she had overreacted, she had given voice to the frustrations and concerns of millions of faithful Catholics who saw liberalising trends in the Church not as a remedy for the crises of modernity, but as the Church conforming to the age. Mother Angelica was increasingly seen, not just as the straight-talking nun with a quick wit, but as a defender – some would say arbiter – of orthodoxy. This made many bishops uneasy.
The most significant confrontation Mother Angelica had with an American bishop arose from remarks she made about a 1997 pastoral letter from the then Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahoney. In the middle of her live show, Mother Angelica said: “[T]he Cardinal of California is teaching that it’s bread and wine before the Eucharist and it’s bread and wine after the Eucharist. I’m afraid my obedience in that diocese would be absolutely zero. And I hope everybody else’s in that diocese is zero.”
That crossed a line. Cardinal Mahoney was not happy. Mother Angelica had not only publicly suggested that the Cardinal did not believe in the Real Presence, but had, in violation of canon law, incited disobedience against a bishop. This was a canonical crime punishable by interdiction – a penalty that would have barred Mother Angelica from the sacraments.
Mahoney demanded a public, on-air apology and clarification. What he got instead was an apology for telling people they should disobey their bishop, followed by a dismantling of the weaker parts of Mahoney’s pastoral letter – all broadcast live to millions of EWTN viewers. In the end, Mahoney never got the apology he wanted and Mother Angelica was never disciplined.
These episcopal confrontations came to a head in 1999 and early 2000. First, the local bishop banned the broadcasting of Mass celebrated ad orientem (as the broadcast Mass at Mother Angelica’s monastery was celebrated) on the grounds that such broadcasts constituted a divisive political statement. Shortly thereafter, Mother Angelica’s monastery was subject to a Vatican visitation.
The visitation seemed, at least to Mother Angelica and her sisters, largely concerned with finding out the precise legal relationship between Mother Angelica and EWTN. These two events convinced Mother Angelica that EWTN was vulnerable to bishops looking to wrest control of the network from her (over whom they had virtually no control) or her religious successor (over whom they would have some control). In March 2000, in order to preserve the independence of EWTN, Mother Angelica resigned and turned over complete control of the EWTN to Bill Steltemeier, who had been her stalwart since the network’s inception.
EWTN had arisen because of Mother Angelica’s willingness to throw herself unreservedly into whatever task God set before her – however improbable or impossible it seemed. And with the same abandon, Mother Angelica gave back to God the great gift that had sprung up so improbably two decades before. If EWTN was God’s work, then it had flourished because of Him, not her. And if it was His work, then it would continue to flourish without her at the helm.
One could argue that it was the confusion that followed Vatican II which created such a vast market for Mother Angelica’s work. In the decades after the Council, the Church in the States, as in many places, went into the desert. Vocations dried up. Seminaries and convents emptied. Sacramental discipline crumbled while open dissent, liturgical silliness, doctrinal ambivalence and bad catechesis spread. For millions of Catholics – especially the ordinary Catholics in the pews, as Mother Angelica liked to say – EWTN proved an oasis of sanity, a rock of stability in the shifting sands of a world gone mad.
Perhaps. But then again, it was Mother Angelica’s complete abandonment to God’s providence (recklessness, in the eyes of the world, and often other Catholics) that allowed her to succeed where others failed. What transforms a cloistered nun into a media mogul? What gives a woman with a vow of obedience the courage to risk episcopal ire and ecclesial sanction? What makes a woman in a Church besieged open up to the future rather than close down and look to the past? What makes a disciple willing to lose her life rather than save it?
Mother Angelica believed in Jesus more than she believed in her own wisdom or competence or savvy, and she staked every part of her life on it every day. The media empire she built is a marvel, no doubt, but Mother Angelica’s greatest legacy is the strength of her faith – a powerful reminder to a fearful and unbelieving world of the extraordinary things God can work through if only we have faith the size of a mustard seed.
Stephen P White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington DC
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