This week marks the 25th anniversary of EW'TN, one of the success stories of religious broadcasting. Dwight Longenecker says Happy Birthday...
-1 twas the early 1940s in small-town Ohio, USA. The little girl's father a
bandoned her when she was an infant; she had a poor education and seemed destined to spend her life helping her mother run a dry cleaning shop. Racked with pain from a stomach disease, the young Rita Rizzo listened to her neighbours and prayed a novena to St Therese of Lisieux. Not only was she healed physically, the nominal Catholic girl "fell in love with God" and decided to become a nun.
At the age of 20 she joined the Poor Clares in Cleveland, Ohio. Yeats later, an accident in the convent left her crippled and paralysed. She asked the Lord for healing and promised that if she could walk again she would open a convent in the Bible Belt of the American south. After she started walking Sister Angelica kept her promise, moved to Alabama to establish the first Poor Clare Convent in the Diocese of Mobile-Birmingham and became Mother Angelica. In the 1960s she started writing little books about the faith to train others. People started to invite her to speak, and so she thought it would be better if she recorded her talks. In the late 1970s she started doiag some broadcasting; then in 1981, the feisty nun started her television network in a garage at the convent with just £100 and a call from God.
Now the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) is a global operation. Through radio, internet, short wave, satellite and cable communications a conservative Catholic message is broadcast to millions of homes. In an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez, Mother Angelica said: "We never thought it would be so beau
tiful and so large!" Where does the money come from? In common with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Angelica and her followers claim that they simply live by faith. They need over Ll million a month to keep the show on the road, but the donations keep rolling in. Some wealthy Catholics write large cheques, but most of the donations are small, from millions of grateful viewers across the world.
Of course Mother Angelica and EWTN have their critics. Mother Angelica is a formidable, charismatic character who combines the grit and shrewd common sense of a charlady with the intelligence, wit and hard word of a successful media mogul. Someone has joked that she looks like Captain Pugwash in a habit, and that's how she behaves. She speaks her mind and doesn't mind who is offended.
She has, notoriously, crossed swords with Los Angeles Archbishop Maloney and has cut highranking media men down to size with her sharp comments and criticism. Her supporters would say that nothing great is ever accomplished by weak-willed people with no character, and that there is never forward motion without friction.
No matter what criticisms one may have of her character or her methods, one cannot help but admire the 83year-old nun's results. Now, on the 25th anniversary of the network's foundation, EWTN has become the largest religious media network in the world, transmitting programming 24 hours a day to more than 105 million homes in 110 countries and 16 territories on more than 3,400 cable systems, wireless cable, Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), low power TV and individual satellite users. Added to this is the interne website which is accessed by millions, a publishing division, short-wave radio, and radio feeds which are offered free to radio stations across America.
Not only has she built a Catholic media empire, she has remained faithful to her vows as a Poor Clare nun. Despite her high profile, her main vocation is still to the contemplative life. While travelling in South America on EWTN business in 1995 she felt called to build a new convent and shrine of the Blessed Sacrament. She returned to Alabama and work began on the new convent in Hanceville.
Mother Angelica now lives there in increasing solitude with about 40 sisters who maintain a traditional cloistered Poor Clare life. There is no shortage of vocations, and the nuns are supported by an order of Franciscan priests called Pranci —scan Missionaries of the Eternal Word which was started by Mother Angelica in 1987. The priority of all involved with EWTN seems to be a real commitment to the Catholic faith. When I visited the station several years ago 1 found the church full of pilgrims and visitors, but I also discovered that most of the staff behaved as if they were part of a permanent religious community. Staff members share prayers together, most of the 300 employees attend Mass during the day, and at any time you may find offices empty because people are taking a break to say the rosary or pray the chaplet of divine mercy. Tasteful critics may sniff at her style, free-thinkers may sneer at her conservative morals and doctrines, liberal Catholics may cringe at her seemingly blind faithfulness, but Mother Angelica has built a media empire and in the face of critics she simply shrugs her shoulders and says: "I didn't do it... God did." It's hard to disagree.
Dwight Longenecker is chaplain to St Joseph's School, Greenville, South Carolina, USA. and is a candidate for the riesthood in the ocese of Charleston