Mark Belnick was a 50-year-old Wall Street lawyer living in wealthy Westchester County, New York, when Mother Angelica reached him in 1997.
Belnick was so high up at Tyco International that when the courts began their aggressive targeting of corporate crime in recent years, he almost got caught in their net— while top executives of the company went to jail, he was acquitted by a jury of any wrongdoing.
One morning he hooked up a cable television in front of his treadmill and was clicking through the channels when he happened upon EWTN—the Eternal World Television Network, founded by Mother Angelica.
“I stopped clicking,” he said.
He became enamored with EWTN. “I would go on the treadmill in the morning and then again after supper,” he told the National Catholic Register. “I could have watched EWTN all day. I was eager to learn more and more.”
He was Jewish when he plugged that television in. He’s Catholic now.
Heather Gaitley was 22, living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, when Mother Angelica reached her in 1993. She had hit a low point and wanted to pull away from the destruction of the bohemian lifestyle she was immersed in.
So she watched EWTN. “I literally would watch it and would just be blown away because it was this faith that I knew I wanted but which I had no knowledge or practical experience of. When I was in it, I wasn’t catechized.” Now, she couldn’t learn fast enough. “I watched Mother Angelica probably all day sometimes,” she said.
Everyone at EWTN has a favorite story. There was the guy who clicked onto EWTN because a pornography network shared the same channel number. When he saw full habits instead of flesh, he tried to change the channel. For some reason, he couldn’t. So he watched. Cancer patients, Playboy bunnies, secret Christians in Muslim countries who watch online—stacks of their stories come in to EWTN each day.
Rhoda the Stigmatist
I had many of these stories typed out and stuffed in my bag as I got on the airplane to travel to EWTN’s Irondale, Alabama, studios. I had spent weeks circling around Mother Angelica’s story.
EWTN is everywhere in the Catholic press as the network looks forward to its August 15, 2006, 25th anniversary. The issue of Faith & Family magazine I was finishing features Mother Angelica on the cover. Tim Drake at the National Catholic Register was interviewing Raymond Arroyo about his new book, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles (Doubleday, 2005).
All the same, before I worked on this story, I can’t honestly say I was a fan of Mother Angelica. Her style of piety didn’t quite suit my taste, I thought, and I wondered at her reputation for skirting Church authority.
But on the plane, I began to read Arroyo’s book, skimming it to get enough information to do my interviews. I ended up so engrossed in the story of Rita Rizzo’s rise from an immigrant neighborhood in Ohio to Catholic superstardom in Alabama that I hardly noticed the flying time from Hartford to Charlotte to Birmingham.
The ingredients of her life seem unlikely to produce a Catholic television mogul—or a committed Catholic of any kind, for that matter. Rita was abandoned by her father as an infant and had to be the adult in the poverty-stricken life she shared with her bitter and sometimes hysterical mother. Rita’s Catholic relatives didn’t exactly rally to her mother’s aid when her father left, and she had too many cold encounters with nuns in school who were rude to her because she was the child of divorce (“I hated them,” she told Arroyo).
Fending for herself and caring for her mother, Rita grew up to become the primary breadwinner of her truncated family—only to be struck with a stomach ailment that left her in severe pain and in bed much of the time. If she thought of God at all, it was with resentment.
But her life took a dramatic turn when she met up with a stigmatist named Rhoda Wise who lived near the city dump. Wise led a doubting Rita in a novena to the Little Flower. At the end of the seven days of prayer, her stomach ailment disappeared. Wise became her tutor in Catholicism. The text for her lessons: Mary Agreda’s The Mystical City of God.
Thus, the future Mother Angelica informed her faith by reading private revelations, nourished it with novenas and chaplets, and found her inspiration in painted statues and holy cards. It’s a style of Catholicism that, for all its seeming gaudiness, is resilient and imaginative. It’s a faith that is unsurprised by both the miraculous on the one hand and the depths of man’s evil on the other. And it was a perfect fit with the life of Rita Rizzo. She met Christ through this spirituality, fell passionately in love with Him (truly—read the book), and hasn’t left His side since.
It has been hard, though. Her convent experiences sound like the script of The Nun’s Story, the Fred Zinnemann film about the penances and humiliations that lead a young nun to repress her personality, then free herself only by escaping.
But at the point in the story when a nervous, exhausted Audrey Hepburn leaves through the open back door of her convent and disappears into a dawning morning, Sister Angelica blossomed inside the convent walls. She found she had a talent for directing construction projects, an entrepreneurial penchant for fundraising, and a gift for teaching often compared to that of Fulton Sheen.
These are the talents that the former Rita Rizzo gave to God, and that He used to build a media empire.
“I am convinced God is looking for dodoes,” she once told Protestant televangelist Jim Bakker. “He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can’t be done, so they don’t do it. But a dodo doesn’t know it can’t be done. God uses dodoes: people who are willing to look ridiculous so God can do the miraculous.”
I put the book aside when the pilot turned off the “Fasten seat belts” sign and called Jerry Hensel on his cell phone. Hensel is a production assistant for EWTN, one person on a staff of 300. Forty percent of the employees are Protestant, 60 percent are Catholic.
Hensel was living in Florida when Mother Angelica first reached him.
“I was a firefighter for 21 years,” he said. “But the environment was getting increasingly hostile, amoral.” He and his wife were avid EWTN fans, They took a pilgrimage to the monastery and television studios and brought Hensel’s resume. They have been in Birmingham ever since.
Hensel’s story reminded me of the EWTN convert stories I had collected. So would many others I heard that day.
My first interview of the morning was with Michael P. Warsaw, president of the network, up in the corner office once occupied by Mother Angelica herself. He was living in Washington, D.C., and working at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception when he sat down with Mother for a “brief chat” that ended hours later with her invitation to “C’mon down!”
At the time, his wife, Jackie, had done a year of doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and was a classical singer working in venues in the Baltimore- Washington area. They had been married less than a year. It took her a while to get used to living in Birmingham, but the family is finally settled in—and now includes son Michael and daughter Angelica.
Next I sat down with Deacon R. William Steltemeier, chairman and CEO of the company—the title Mother had until her retirement in 2000. His EWTN vocation story began when he and Mother locked eyes, but never spoke, at a talk she was giving in Chicago. When he looked her up weeks later and traveled from his native Memphis to meet her, she took one glance at him and said, “What took you so long?”
Deacon Steltemeier was there when EWTN was founded in a converted garage near Our Lady of the Angels monastery, two months before Karol Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.
In the early days, “Mother was a constant presence” at the studio and in EWTN’s offices, says Warsaw.
Now, Mother Angelica’s monastery has moved off the lot to a grand new location an hour away in Hanceville, and she no longer visits the studio. But she’s still present.
You see her everywhere you go, gazing out from wall posters, smiling warmly from cards pinned to bulletin boards, sitting like a logo on the front of brochures and pamphlets.
She’s there in the names the staff have given their children. Warsaw happened to have three Mother Angelica books on his desk when I visited. According to Steltemeier, “Mother’s still the heart and soul of the network.”
Indeed she is. She oversaw the building of EWTN from a single show to the point where it now offers 24-hour programming, 80 percent of it produced on site, to 104 million homes in 110 countries on cable, satellite, and low-power TV. Before she stepped aside, she personally picked all of the officers who now lead the network.
“Since December 2001 when she had her stroke, EWTN has had its largest single period of growth,” Warsaw told me. “One of the secrets of EWTN’s success is her constant prayers in front of the Blessed Sacrament.”
A Whirlwind Tour
After the calm and quiet of my interviews came a whirl-wind tour of EWTN’s property. I had to practically jog to keep up with EWTN communications’ vice president, A. Scott Hults. We moved in and out of corridors, seamlessly passing between the converted garage where the network started and the wings of offices and workrooms that were added over the years.
I noticed rows of what looked like room dividers, until I got closer. Each of them was a backdrop for an EWTN show.
Pull this one out of its tight little space and roll it behind Marcus Grodi and he’s in a living room for The Journey Home. This one transports Rev. Francis Mary (a priest of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, founded by Mother Angelica in 1987) to his on-air coffee house for Life on the Rock. There’s a library in there to roll behind the intellectuals, faux stained glass for the spiritual programs. I’m enough of a romantic to feel a buzz of excitement in the presence of these artifacts, seen by millions.
“We construct these ourselves,” said Hults, who gives Doug Keck, the network’s programming senior vice president, credit for upgrading the on-air look of EWTN. He deserves it. As EWTN ages, it actually looks younger than ever on air.
Next he took me into the workshop where set designers create these on-air “environments.” EWTN does practically everything in-house. It has a print shop, an Internet server farm, radio studios with a worldwide reach, and satellite transponders that beam its programming into space and back into cable carriers and satellite homes all over the world.
We stayed a bit to watch. Through a glass window and on screens above them, we could see the action in the TV studio, where a young woman was turning on all her sunny kid-charm to coax a well-dressed boy to say, “When I grow up, I want to do what God wants.”
Stubbornly, he refused. Ebulliently, she insisted.
This is also a sign of EWTN’s growth. Back in the early 1980s all they had to produce was Mother Angelica Live two nights a week. The rest of the schedule was filled with borrowed religious and secular shows. Now they create their own programming for every age group.
Down the next corridor, we stepped into a booth where a young blond woman in casual clothes was squinting at a screen, wearing earphones, and typing. “She’s double checking the Spanish-language subtitles,” Hults told me.
Sure enough, the screen was filled with Spanish. EWTN has heavily infiltrated the airwaves of Latin and South America—and offers its programs to the Spanish-speaking population coast to coast in the United States.
She took off her earphones and greeted me in a thick Southern drawl. The juxtaposition of Spanish and Southernese took me off guard, as so much did on this tour. We passed the big front desk with a reredos of TV screens behind it showing EWTN feeds from around the world, darted briefly outside through a gaggle of Philippino tourists, then burst back in through another door, almost colliding with
Jesuit Rev. Mitch Pacwa, host of EWTN Live, wearing a big straw hat and a broad smile.
Signs and Blunders
In addition to the television and radio stations, EWTN also runs a small print shop. It still puts out the same pamphlets that Mother Angelica’s teaching ministry started with in the early 1970s. She calls them mini-books. Says one of the books, from 1973: “We use the talents we possess to the best of our ability and leave the results to God. We are at peace in the knowledge that he is pleased with our efforts and that his providence will take care of the fruit of those efforts.”
Mother had high hopes for her mini-books. “Give me 10 Jehovah’s Witness–type Catholics and I can change the world,” she said. “Every person should be a missionary. We need to get so excited about our faith that we want to share it with our neighbors. The books and mini-books are mustard seeds. Every housewife, every businessman can be a missionary. Drop a book, drop a leaflet wherever you go. You plant the seed and then the Spirit will take over.”
Back then, a sign in the shop echoed Mother’s core message: “The Master’s Print Shop. We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re getting good at it.”
Everywhere I went on the property, I found messages hanging on walls reminding me that God is in charge here.
“As a Penance Do Not Smoke on Monastery Property,” said one.
But the signs also recall the spirituality of Mother Angelica. One dedicates the gift shop to El Nino and the Sacred Heart. Over doors that lead outside were the scrawled initials of the Magi flanked by the four digits of the year the facilities were last blessed: “20+C+M+B+05.”
I had an opportunity to ask about Mother’s faith when I was brought to the library to meet Colin B. Donovan, vice president for theology. He reviews shows and makes sure they’re in conformity with Catholic teaching. He’s in charge of a department of six employees—three of whom do nothing but answer online questions about the Faith.
Do Mother Angelica’s personal devotions and spirituality shape the network? “Mother has always been clear that just because she has an interest in something, the network doesn’t need to share it,” replied the sober, scholarly Donovan. “We’ve never been obliged to pursue something just because Mother does.”
It’s a heartening answer—but not one that’s likely to mollify critics. And there have been plenty of critics.
A National Catholic Reporter piece acknowledged in 1997 that Catholics are largely uncatechized, then added a jab at the network: “EWTN fills that hole with the Baltimore Catechism, or rather their selective version of 1940s Catholicism, which they imagine will restore their lost world. At time of writing, a six-part series of interviews with Vienna Bishop Christoph Schonborn on the new Catechism was planned, perhaps, in their eyes, the best opportunity to put the modern theological toothpaste back in the tube.”
Another typical sneer can be found in a January Chicago Sun-Times book review. Dolores and Roger Flaherty take a moment out from reviewing a comic novel about a nun to sum up Mother Angelica as “the elderly Catholic nun who lectures teens on fornication and bishops on theology.” The Flahertys’ enthusiasm for teen sex is downright creepy, but their crack about the bishops hit a raw nerve at EWTN. When I brought it up in interviews I was told to “read the book.”
Indeed, Arroyo does an excellent job untangling the threads in the story of Mother Angelica’s friction with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when they tried to start their own cable television network, and with Roger Cardinal Mahony over a 1997 pastoral letter that she said soft-pedaled Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.
Cardinal Mahony was tenacious in his desire to get Mother Angelica to take back what she said about the letter. But then, in the year 2000, he followed up his document on the Eucharist with one on the liturgy that called the priest shortage “one of the many fruits of Vatican II,” because it opened up new liturgical roles for lay people.
After that, it wasn’t just Mother Angelica critiquing him. Philadelphia Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua responded that the shortage was a “crisis of the modern world wounded by materialism, practical philosophical atheism, skepticism, subjectivism, individualism, hedonism, social injustice, war and attacks upon the dignity of the human person.”
Arroyo’s book does a great service by documenting the many collaborators Mother Angelica has had in the hierarchy—including longtime Birmingham bishop David E. Foley, who many know only for his unusual liturgical edicts banning the broadcasting of the ad orientam posture that Mother Angelica’s chapel had been using in its broadcasts.
Warsaw listed all of the ways EWTN has tried to help the U.S. bishops. “There’s no question that EWTN and its mission have used the electronic media in a way that builds up the Church,” he said.
Mother Angelica felt the need to respond to the critics in her conversations with Arroyo. “I don’t want to be conservative and I don’t want to be liberal,” she told him. “I want to be Catholic. Now if that offends the liberals, tough. If it offends the ultraconservatives, tough. I can’t be influenced by any of them. I want to know what the Church teaches.”
Suffering With God
In my day spent at EWTN, I began to see that Mother Angelica’s spirituality goes much deeper than the externals that had tripped me up.
I heard it first from Samuel F. Carnley in accounting when I asked him about the legend that EWTN refuses to use a budget. He didn’t answer directly but noted that the accounting he does is “not a bottom-line approach.” What other kind of accounting is there? “We operate on a model of stewardship,” he said. “We count on the donors to answer God’s call.”
Deacon Steltemeier elaborated. “The Lord told Mother, ‘Get it up there and I’ll take care of the rest.'” So Mother got the signal going, and then demurred from grand fundraising schemes, telethons, and the like. She simply asked listeners to “think of us in between your light bill and your gas bill.” And they responded.
“The listeners realized that Mother loved them,” Steltemeier said. “They could see that Mother loves them. The power of the Lord’s love compels us to do what God wants us to do. That’s dynamite stuff.”
Behind the feisty demeanor, pain and suffering, obedience and faith have been the constants in Mother Angelica’s life. It’s as if at each stage of her life, God took a strange pleasure in calling her to do something big, throwing an impossible obstacle in her way, then watching her do it anyway.
When she was trying to be a little girl, He watched her lose her family. When she was trying to be a contemplative nun, He allowed her to develop a swelling condition in her knees that made it impossible to kneel and almost cost her a place in the convent. Before calling her to lead crews in building an unprecedented monastery in the deep South, God watched her lose the ability to walk in a freak accident.
When she tried to serve the Church with a worldwide cable television network that inspired countless conversions, prominent bishops tried to shut her down. And after she built her own wildly successful talk show into a media empire, God took away her ability to communicate.
The jolly nun who spoke as much with her warm grin and mischievous winks as with her frank words is now all but unable to speak.
“He expects me to operate, if I don’t have the money, if I don’t have the brains, if I don’t have the talent—in faith,” she told Arroyo. “You know what faith is? Faith is one foot on the ground, one foot in the air, and a queasy feeling in the stomach.”
Hers is a prime example of the spirituality of suffering that historians will likely use to define the Catholicism of the 20th century, despite so many attempts by Catholics to blaze easier spiritual paths.
One thinks of the stigmatist Padre Pio, whose shrine is the most visited in the world, but whose name is rarely mentioned in homilies. Or Mother Teresa, who spent decades in spiritual darkness. St. Faustina, St. Gianna Molla, Edith Stein—what so many of these modern saints have in common is that their causes were advanced by John Paul II, the suffering pope. Like Mother Angelica, he too lost his family, then his mobility, then his speech—and left an enormous mark on the world.
People who undergo suffering on this scale are usually crushed by it. But those who accept these blows as ways to commune with God open up channels of grace capable of moving mountains.
Thus, EWTN stands as more than a monument to the charism and powers of one woman—though Mother Angelica’s charismatic powers certainly didn’t hurt.
“EWTN is God’s network,” said Warsaw.
He once asked Mother what her legacy would be. She didn’t mention the number of TV households, the facilities, the radio signals that span the globe, or any of the rest of it. She didn’t mention the conversions people attribute to her work, or the enormous shrine that rises like Assisi’s cathedral in the middle of a Hanceville, Alabama, field. Her legacy? “That all we did in all of this was rely on the Lord’s providence.”
“You want to do something for the Lord?” Mother once asked. “Do it. Whatever you feel needs to be done, even though you’re shaking in your boots, you’re scared to death—take the first step forward. The grace comes with that one step and you get the grace as you step. Being afraid is not a problem; it’s doing nothing when you’re afraid.”
Deacon Steltemeier described her life now. “She prays and suffers for the Church and for the world and for EWTN. That’s all she does. And she’s happy. If you see her you just melt with joy. She’s prayerful, childlike, loving.”
Then he left me with one caution about my article. “Don’t just talk about the suffering,” he said. “Talk about love. It’s love that bears fruit.”