No sooner had Mother Angelica set foot in a television studio than she knew she wanted one. C John McCloskey on the fiesty nun who makes cardinals quail
Mother Angelica — The remarkable story of a nun, her nerve, and a network of Miracles. Doubleday
How did Rita Rizzo, a sickly girl with only a high school diploma, single-handedly create the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the largest religious broadcasting empire in the world, succeeding where all the bishops of the United States and several millionaires had failed? Raymond Arroyo, an EWTN presenter, comes closer than anyone else to explaining the phenomenon that is Mother Angelica.
This book is based on exclusive interviews conducted in the years before Mother Angelica's incapacitating strokes, and is full of surprising insights into her life, both interior and exterior. As Arroyo puts it: "One evening before shooting her live show, she gave me but one instruction, which has haunted me to this day: 'There is nothing worse than a book that sugarcoats the truth and ducks the humanity of the person. I wish you 40 years in purgatory if you do that.'
Arroyo need not worry about the curse. As he puts it: "I have written a book that does not avoid the seeming contradictions inherent in Mother Angelica's character: the cloistered, contemplative nun who speaks to the world; the independent rule-breaker who is derided as a 'rigid' conservative; the wisecracking comedian who suffers near constant pain; the Poor Clare nun who runs a multi-milliondollar corporation."
Rita was born into a severely dysfunctional family in a poor Italian neighbourhood in eastern Ohio. Her father was an absent good-for-nothing, her mother hysterical and dependent upon Rita's mothering. In her late teens, the religiously unmotivated Rita encountered a questionable stigmatic who encouraged her entry into a Poor Clares monastery in Cleveland, against severe family opposition. In this account of her dismal early years, Arroyo uncovers onlyone hint of things to come, captured in a photograph of the young Rita prancing with "sass and spunk" as the first female majorette at McKinley High in 1939.
Several years of work followed high school, and then the cloister swallowed her up. Before long, she also entered the forge of intense physical suffering that continues to this day. Accompanying that suffering was a schooling in contemplative prayer, and out ofthe two came EWTN and the splendid Poor Clare monastery she founded in the middle of the Bible Belt. How Flannery O'Connor, America's greatest
Catholic storyteller and a daughter of the Deep South, would have enjoyed all this.
Someone with the temperament and personality of Angelica perhaps not the most apt religious name for her naturally clashed with some fellow sisters and superiors.
Eventually her good and clever nature enabled her to make her final vows, after some close calls along the way. Then came the special call. Facing surgery that might have led to permanent paralysis, she panicked: "Caught between prayer and frenzy, clawing at her sheets, Angelica struck an outrageous bargain: 'Lord, if you let me walk again, I'll build you a monastery in the South.—
Her original intention was to "do all in my power to promote a cloistered community among the Negroes ... It would ceaselessly make reparation for all the insults and persecution the Negro race suffers and implore God's blessings and graces upon a people dear to the Heart of God." This was written in a letter in 1957. Strangely enough, Mother and her sisters never developed any special apostolate to African-Americans. Her original motivation simply seems to have been God's way of putting the monastery in position for even greater evangelising possibilities, ultimately extending to almost every nation and race.
It took several years and initial opposition from her bishop before Mother finally moved to Birmingham. Alabama. where her talents as a businesswoman were put on display. She gave dozens of talks to all types of audiences, Jewish and Protestant included, speaking of the needs of her monastery and preaching the Gospel. This migrated into a boo and tape business that eventually led her into television. In the early days she supplemented contributions with a business selling fishing equipment (inevitably named after St Peter) and a roast peanut enterprise.
Throughout his book, Arroyo relates anecdotes of last-minute reprieves from crushing debts, mortgages about to be called in, enormous bills. Time after time. an unexpected cheque arrives, a chance acquaintance turns out to be a millionaire, a foundation forgives a loan to save the day. This woman depended totally on God's providence and the intercession of her favourite saints. And they did not turn her down.
A key moment in her story is a fateful trip to Chicago during which she visited Channel 38, a Baptist television station run from a Chicago skyscraper. There she encountered her first TV studio. "Lord, I got to have one of these," she said. Following chapters tell of her early efforts to establish EWTN, making her monastery the first religious community to ever obtain a federal licence to broadcast.
For a long time, Mother Angelica resisted asking for money on air, trusting in providence, like Mother Teresa. Finally, she began slipping in a modest request at the end of her live programme. Over time, her watchers have responded with millions of dollars enough to finance technology that beamed her signal from Birmingham to satellites circling the earth, thus multiplying her audience to the whole world.
One of the adjectives most often used to describe Mother is "feisty," and Arroyo does not shrink from revealing that side of her. Contretemps with bishops, cardinals. elements of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and even some of her staff and financial backers are recounted fairly and judiciously.) think you can guess who generally comes out on top. Lee Iacocca calls Mother Angelica "the patron saint of CEOs". And all of this without benefit of an MBA In all her vicissitudes, she had one important backer: John Paul II. who showed her many signs of favour in the face of her difficulties both within and without the Church. He last met her in Rome in 1996. when he pronounced for all to hear: "Mother Angelica, weak in body, strong in spirit, strong woman, courageous woman, charismatic woman!"
The book ends with a scene in which Mother faces down her board, insisting that her new monastery be completely separate from EWTN, thus constituting the network as the secular and lay-run enterprise she intended. She then resigns as CEO and retires to her new monastery and Eucharistic Shrine of the Child Jesus, surrounded by dozens of young voca tions, to finish her days in prayer before entering into eternal life.
Raymond Arroyo has written the book only he could write as an intimate friend of Mother Angelica. But it is more than that: it is a screenplay for Mother Angelica: The Movie. Perhaps Arroyo will prevail upon his friend, Mel Gibson, to direct it.
And I would not be surprised if this book is already on file in the Congregation of Saints in Rome. Just in case it's needed.
Fr C John McCloskey is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington