Is Britain ready for Mother Angelica's inimitable brand of Catholic broadcasting?
Luke Coppen finds out SHE IS THE world's most unlikely television star. Plump, bespectacled, clad in a black habit and a Persil-white wimple. A frail, septuagenarian nun from a strictly enclosed order, who has no time for the orthodoxies of the television world.
As television producers make desperate sacrifice to their trinity of sex, drugs and violence, she patiently explores the unfashionable subjects of God, morality and the Catholic faith. As they plumb the depths of human depravity in search of novelty, she preaches the same message every day. As they fret over dwindling viewing figures, she draws an audience that is the envy of the global media barons. How does she do it?
The first thing you need to know about Mother Angelica is that she is a sign of contradiction. Her public spats with senior American bishops, and her searing critique of liberal Catholicism have made her enemies. And those discomfited by her defence of traditional Catholic practice and values never miss an opportunity to ridicule and deride her work. To one, she is "a petty, nasty woman who tries to sugar-coat her nastiness with smarmy, self-righteous condescension". Another sees only "a bitter disappointed old woman who has lost touch with reality".
Mother Angelica is used to insults. They began when she was young. Six to be exact, when her indigent ItalianAmerican parents divorced, marking her with the stigma of a broken home. As friends shrank away, she got used to being an outsider. And that is what she remains today.
A lot has happened in the intervening 70 years. The lonely, malnourished girl has become arguably the most famous living nun in the world She has left the fear and confusion of youth for a life of total trust and hope in God. She has created the world's largest religious cable-broadcasting network, with a reach in excess of 600 million homes in 34 countries, and continues to dream of expanding the network to reach every single person on the planet.
But it all began in a poor district of Canton, Ohio, a town slung midway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. With her father gone, Mother Angel
ica and her depressive mother, Mae, relied on the Church for their basic needs. Ostracised at school, beset by ill health and aching poverty, the only sanctuary she found was in the Church.
But even that was shaken one day, when a priest in whom she confided was gunned down by a neighbourhood gang. The murder flung Mother Angelica into a depression, which was accompanied by terrible stomach pains. The doctors could do nothing for her, so she said a novena to St Therase of Lisieux. To her terror, the pain increased to the point she felt she was going to die.
When she woke up next morning, a Sunday, something was missing. Her pain had gone, disappeared utterly. "To be an outcast and suddenly have God single me out for preferential treatment was a dramatic reversal for me," she has said. "I fell in love with God and really began to thirst for him. My life changed from that point on."
Since then her life has not stopped changing. And the miracles haven't stopped.
ON AUGUST 15, 1981. Mother Angelica made Catholic history with the push of a single button. The button lit up television screens across the United States with the symbol of the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), the world's rust ever Catholic satellite television network.
When she thinks of how she, a cloistered nun, came to press that button, which brought Catholicism to a new audience of millions, Mother Angelica is filled with awe.
"Who would put the first Catholic television network behind a cloistered community in America in the Baptist South?" she asked last month on the phone from her monastery in Irondale, Alabama. "That is a work of God. Nobody would think of that. Nobody gave us a chance of success. But we weren't looking for success. We were looking to reach people. And even if everything we've done would reach one soul, in the eyes of God it was worth it."
EWTN began, literally, by accident. Not long after she had made her perpetual vows as a Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Mary Angel
lea cif the Annunciation slipped while cleaning the floor of her monastery in Cleveland. The fall twisted her spine and doctors warned she faced permanent paralysis unless she consented to major surgery. The night before the operation, she made God a promise. If he would allow her to walk again, she would build him a monastery in the deep South.
Mother Angelica dedicated the Monastery of Our Lady of the Angels in hondale in May 1962. The first sisters — who included her mother — lived a life of perpetual Eucharistic adoration and constant hardship. Mother Angelica, as
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foundress, swiftly emerged as a jealous defender of orthodoxy and religious discipline.
"We had one priest," she recalled, "who came to us and the first thing he said was, 'You don't need to be baptised.' I said, 'Thank you, Father, there's the door.' I never let anybody in. You begin to let all these people who have either lost their faith or are shaky in their faith and they come in with these socalled new ideas. But they're not new and they are not ideas.
"If you feed your Sisters that, you can guarantee that your community is going to break up. There is nothing there to unite it. Unless you have great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady, in this day and age, you are not going to make it, because there are too many forces around you, too many people have lost their faith. The real faith goes down the drain."
This robust attitude enabled the monastery to avoid the haemorrhaging that bled dry other women's religious orders in the United States. Following the Second Vatican Council, Mother Angelica began to preach to her Sisters and the increasing numbers of visitors to the monastery. Her forthright eloquence and sponta neous humour struck a cord with listeners and her speeches were soon made into tapes, then into booklets and finally into books.
And then came television. Mother Angelica was given permission to leave the monastery to appear on a television programme in Chicago. When she arrived at the station she was struck by a desire: "I simply have to have one of these."
Her charismatic speaking style and curiously telegenic appearance lead to an invitation to make a series for the network. All was well until the station decided to broadcast the controversial feature film, The Word, a dull precursor of The Last Temptation of Christ. Mother Angelica told the station manager to chose between her and the film. Predictably, he chose the film. This left Mother Angelica with hut one option — to acquire a television station of her own.
"We started with $200 and no knowledge of television at all. Our life is not television. It never has been and it never will be. We know, though, that the conditions of the world are such that people hunger for God. And I feel the success and the reason that we can take risks is because of our Sisters' prayers, day and night, before the Blessed Sacrament. If we felt the Lord wanted us to do something, we never had a meeting — never. The Lord is always opening a door. And we go in."
S you great on, in y and U are ing to e it WM-I EXTRAORDINARY religious brinkmanship, Mother Angelica began to assemble a cable television network in a garage behind the monastery. And somehow — Mother Angelica attributes it to divine providence — there came the gleeful day in 1981 when she beamed Catholic television across America.
Over the next 19 years, Mother Angelica dedicated her life to spreading the Gospel through the medium of television. But what she is best known for in Britain are the few times she has clashed publicly with the American bishops. This has given us the false impression that Mother Angelica has devoted her entire life to lambasting the US episcopate. It has led many to assume that the raison d'être of her television station is to promote her own brand of Catholic orthodoxy, without episcopal interference. But Mother Angelica insisted this could not be further from the truth.
"I don't think I am [controversial]," she said. "I've just been Catholic. Some like me being Catholic, some don't like me being Catholic.
"I don't have anything against bishops. Ninety-nine per cent of them, I've never spoken to. I have no relationship with them, because we're a pontifical order. Today, if you are a Catholic, you are in trouble. If there are those who have changed their view of the Church, then you become a controversial figure.
"To me being controversial is meaning when you are pushing something untrue. But we are speaking the truth. You have to take a lot of time listening to the network to find something that's very wrong with it. That's what constitutes a controversy. I don't talk to bishops. I don't write them letters. I don't have any conversations with them. I love them. I think they have a great work to do. But it's just speaking the truth many
times. That makes you controversial"
Few English Catholics know the significance of the date April 12, 2000. But in the future it will be remembered as the day that, for the first time in our history, 24-hour Catholic television became available in our homes. On that day EWTN extended its reach not just to Britain, but to the whole of continental Europe.
"We're not here to initiate American programming," Mother Angelica explained. "What we want to know is what you need, what you feel your people need and we will provide that for you as long as you want us to. Then you've got to start producing your own programmes."
A typical day on EWTN includes a live Mass from the Vatican, a documentary on the art of icons, a panel discussion of the latest papal encyclical, a counselling programme for expectant mothers, a dramatisation of the Gospels and regular world-news bulletins.
And for those who associate religious broadcasting with the toe-curling, low-budget films that rest unbought in every Catholic bookshop, EWTN is a revelation. Hailed as the "gold standard in religious broadcasting", it makes programme quality a chief concern.
"We try to make it as beautiful as possible," Mother Angelica said, "because we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Non-Catholics will keep the station on day and night. There was this one woman Methodist, who said: 'I feel my house is blessed when I have it on.' Well, you're hearing the Word of God, undiluted, unchanged. The network is there to present the beauty of the Church's doctrines and spirituality."
The network is illuminated by the spirituality of the Poor Cares who pray constantly for its viewers. "Don Bosco had this vision in his latter days," Mother Angelica said. "He saw this ship with the Holy Father on it and he these two pillars rose up from the ocean in front of it and one had Our Lady on it and the other had the Blessed Sacrament. I would add to that faithfulness to the Holy Father. If you have those three you will go through any storm. And you have to pray."
Prayer is fundamental to EWTN — "to me, without the contemplative life, with an apostolate like this, it would be dangerous," Mother Angelica warned — and the Poor Clare's prayers are already bearing fruit in Britain, where more and mom people air linking up to the satellite television channel and the ETWN internet site.
One English viewer said she was doubtful when she first heard about it. "Although I was unsure whether or not American Catholic television would appeal to my English tastes, I felt I would like to try it out. When the satellite installer showed the video he had made over the previous few hours, I needed no further convincing.
"There in my room was the life story of St Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Edith Stein. A nun then showed us round the Holy Father's home in Poland. I am overwhelmed by the quality and range of programmes. All the special events are shown live: the beatifications of the children of' Fatima, the World Youth Day. Then there are programmes on the lives of saints and martyrs and series on Padre Pio, St Th6r&se of Lisieux and Cardinal Newman.
"Although I have never been a keen television viewer, I would certainly not miss the nightly homily during Mass. Overall I have found it an enormous stimulus to my. devotional life and is filling some of the voids in my Catholic education."
Fr Michael Lee, a parish priest from Stockport, said that EWTN had added a new dimension to his ministry. "I don't normally watch television, but I decided to get it. -• And now, I couldn't think of anything better. It's most uplifting and the teaching is totally' Catholic and most enlightening. All the people on it are so • good.
"They have these sayings and I put them each week on my parish newsletter. I also record programmes and show. them to my parishioners. This' week I'm showing one to our prayer group.
"EWTN is very important because they're giving us the truth. People will say it's rightwing, but it's not — it's orthodox. I'm not right-wing myself, but I believe it's important for people to get the right message, to get the truth. They are not getting it at the moment and that's sad."
MOTHER ANGELICA'S. plans for the station in Britain are, characteristically, at once humble
and deeply ambitious. .
"Our only plan now is to reach everybody in Britain, in Europe, in Ireland — to at least, be available. We want to be available at midnight when people become suicidal or depressed; two o'clock in the morning when their pain is more than they can take; riding down a highway, being distracted, being so filled with oppression and depression and all the worries of the day. Just. to be available, to say: here we are — when you need us, tune in."
• EWTN reaches the UK and Ireland via a digital satellite signal from the European satellite Hotbird 4, while EWTN radio is available on an analogue signal from Astra IC. For more information write to: Divine Word Programmes Ltd, PO Box 19669, London SE19 2WW. Tel: 01328 864447 or email: [email protected] See this weeks back page.