Leaving aside the popes, the person who has served as the public face of the Church in the United States for the past two decades is a little, crippled, chronically ill, old Italian-American lady who chats with Jesus daily, used to speak in tongues, and leaps before she looks. As I write this, she is quite ill, and we can’t predict how long she will be with us. But the global media empire planted by this contemplative Poor Clare has put down mighty roots, with millions of viewers who love its dogged loyalty to the teachings of the Church. Indeed, in large swathes of the country where parishes have either closed or turned de facto Methodist, EWTN’s broadcasts serve the isolated faithful like Allied broadcasts into Occupied Europe.
Given the crisis of faith of the 1970s and 1980s, building EWTN sometimes meant flouting the power of worldly bishops who’d learned more than golf tricks from their liberal Protestant colleagues. Indeed, too many clerics had soaked in the pastel, fuzzy uplift that for “mainline” denominations has largely replaced the Faith. By building without these gray men’s by-your-leave a media operation that reached millions of the most devout and generous Catholics in the country, Mother Angelica did an end-run around the bureaucratic institutions that modernists had co-opted — and built an enduring bridge between ordinary believers and the teaching office of Peter.
Born Rita Antoinette Rizzo to a fragile, fashionable mother and a worthless tom-catting father, she grew up desperately poor in a Mafia-infested Canton, Ohio. John Rizzo left her mother to fend for herself while Rita was still a toddler — an abandonment from which Mrs. Mae Rizzo would never recover. (She would end up becoming the single most crochety nun in Mother Angelica’s own community.) Marital meltdown wasn’t taken for granted back then the way it is now; indeed, at my own Catholic school in the 1970s in New York, we all knew the one kid whose parents had gotten . . . divorced. And we felt bad for him — a pity he flouted by learning to fistfight and becoming the neighborhood’s best garage-band drummer. He kicked my butt more than once. (He was also Italian.) But I digress.
Or perhaps I don’t. On a natural level, it just may have been the vicious scorn Pharisaical nuns poured on Rita in school for her father’s sins and the sight of her mother slaving at odd jobs in the Depression that made Rita so beatifically implacable. Out of place at school, treated sternly by her mother’s disappointed family, and afflicted with chronic abdominal pain that forced her as a teenager to wear a corset, Rita developed a rich inner life that more than made up for missing the Lindy Hop. Having heard of a home-bound lay mystic, Rhoda Wise, who bore the stigmata, Rita befriended her — behavior that wasn’t, in the 1940s, typical for a Midwestern teenager. Wise’s intercessory prayer led to the cure of Rita’s debilitating illness and launched her on the road to a religious vocation. Scornful of the fidelity that men seemed to offer, Rita didn’t get out much. As she told her biographer and longtime collaborator Raymond Arroyo: “I was never a sexpot, and I never wanted a date. Sexually, I’m a eunuch. I could care less. It’s just not my bag.” (You can read Arroyo’s moving, candid account of her life and struggles in his book Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles.)
Lest she sound frigid as opposed to chaste, Arroyo records the torrid, Mediterranean love affair of the adolescent Rita with the One she would eventually come to call her Spouse. After slogging through high school with middling grades, she went to work at Timken Roller Bearing Company, where she began introducing her true Love to others. There, Arroyo writes,
a picture of Jesus impaled by a crown of thorns sat on the edge of Rita’s desk. When accused by a co-worker of “pushing her religion,” Rita responded, “If you have a picture of a movie star or someone you love, you put it out there. Well, this is my love, and it’s going to stay there.”
Soon Rita realized she wished to wed the Man she loved. She applied to a strict Franciscan contemplative community — and persevered despite a long list of obstacles that ranged from her rebellious personality to chronic knee pain that made it excruciating for her to join in communal prayer. (Mother Angelica would later write that in the convent her knees were like “two puffy water-filled grapefruit.”) On Nov. 8, 1945, Rita Rizzo took her first vows as a religious, marking the occasion with a letter to her mother that reads like a wedding invitation.
Angelica would carry that conjugal conviction through the decades, living with an almost constant sense that Christ was her faithful, high-maintenance spouse. Intense reading in spiritual authors like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection helped Sister Angelica school herself in radical trust. What’s puzzling to us worldly folks is that this trust would only grow stronger in the face of suffering and disappointment. In an incident that Mother Angelica has retold hundreds of times to live and televised audiences, the young nun was cleaning the monastery floor with an unwieldy electronic polisher when the contraption got out of control — injuring her so seriously that she would eventually need a full body cast and weeks of traction. No treatments helped very much, and Mother Angelica was left with chronic numbness and back pain, forced to wear a back brace just to get around.
Her response to this crippling event? She decided to found another monastery. For some time, sisters in her community had talked of creating an abbey that would pray for and minister to black Americans — whose civil-rights activists were then being murdered and churches were being bombed. But no concrete plans had been made. So in her hospital bed, with no prospect of ever walking normally, Mother Angelica offered her Spouse what she calls her “outrageous bargain.” Arroyo cites a letter she later wrote that laid it out:
A year ago when the doctors were doubtful that I would walk again, I turned to our Lord and promised that if he would grant me the grace to walk, I would do all in my power to promote a cloistered community among the Negroes. It would be dedicated to the Negro Apostolate by prayer, adoration, sacrifice, and union with God. It would ceaselessly make reparation for all the insults and persecutions the Negro race suffers and implore God’s blessings and graces upon a people dear to the Heart of God.
While her healing was slow and incomplete, Mother Angelica didn’t wait around to see if Christ was keeping up His end. With permission from her superior, she gathered other willing nuns to take up this unlikely mission with her in some hostile zone of the Bible Belt — finally settling on an area just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. Ironically, fear of actual violence would lead the new community to keep its mission of racial reparation a closely guarded secret. In the long run, the nuns would end up serving another persecuted minority — faithful American Catholics.
Selected to head the new community, Mother Angelica would raise the money to build it and keep it running through a wide array of holy schemes — from marketing fishing lures to Protestant anglers with promises of blessings from St. Peter, to roasting peanuts whose “nun-appeal” made them novelties at ballparks. In the end, the only reason the self-educated Angelica started writing books and recording religious tapes was to raise much-needed funds for her abbey. The popularity and profitability of the tapes soon led her to television, which she instantly grasped was the tool needed to “reach the masses.” That was when her moxie came out. As Arroyo tells it:
When the local station she contracted to film her video series decided to air a movie denying the resurrection of Christ, Mother . . . blew her top. She insisted that the station drop the movie, or she would walk. The station manager got nasty, threatening that she’d “be off television permanently” if she left. “I don’t need you, I only need God,” Mother fired back. “I will build my own studio, buy my own cameras, and tape my own shows.”
Coming from anyone else, this might have been a peevish boast, or empty threat. But Mother Angelica had come to see a pattern in her life: Faced with grinding pain and apparent futility, she would always respond with several steps, in this order:
- Ask God His will in prayer.
- Once she knew it, throw caution to the wind and trust that He would make her efforts fruitful.
- Work like a madwoman, wheedling support from the uncertain and shunting aside doubters and dissenters who got in her way.
- Rinse, repeat.
In other words, Mother Angelica would follow the Ignatian dictum to “pray as if all depended on God, and work as if all depended on you.” While some tenured Jesuits may resent what Mother Angelica has said over the decades on her talk show — and she’s not one for undue tact — they must appreciate how well she lives out this charism.
The source of Mother Angelica’s Olympic-level diligence was the fiercely protective love a woman bears her husband — especially when he suffers innocently for others. She couldn’t bear to see her Beloved mocked, and she wouldn’t stand idly by. So when that network flippantly questioned the Resurrection, she did found her own network. When U.S. bishops greeted a visit of Pope John Paul II with a show that featured Christ as a female mime, she stopped accepting their programming, despite their string-pulling and threats. When Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles issued a pastoral letter she thought watered down the Real Presence, she critiqued him, point-by-point, on television — and refused to offer a false apology, even when Cardinal Mahony’s machinations got her threatened with interdict (the loss of the Sacraments) and the closure of her community. When still other bishops tried to gain control of EWTN and stifle her loudly orthodox voice, she famously said, “I’ll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on it.” Her eyes always focused on the eyes of her Beloved, she was almost blind to the worldly obstacles thrown in her way. She stepped right over them.
Mother Angelica has flouted powerful men, the conventional wisdom, and the voice of prudence so many times that for her it’s almost routine. Her intimate contact with Christ has helped her to keep, in the midst of outrageous success and mounting power, the simplicity of her founders — Francis and Clare. What drew her to those saints, Mother Angelica has said, was “their absolute dependence on the providence of God. They saw him in all. And what they undertook was not planned by them, but through their love and detachment they fit into whatever was happening in the present.”
It takes a broadly Catholic imagination to see the strand connecting the threadbare life of St. Francis to the basilicas, hospitals, and colleges built in his name. Likewise we won’t know till Judgment Day how many conversions, “reversions,” vocations, and deepened lives of faith can be traced to Mother Angelica’s influence. And that’s just as well, since she’d never take the credit, attributing all her successes to Providence rather than personality. That said, it helped that Mother Angelica knew how to hornswoggle Baptists into laying free pipe for nuns, to charm the socks off jaded cable-TV execs, bend the ears of visiting cardinals, and impress the pope. She worked without ceasing, except to pray. It’s hard to imagine that she will ever rest, even in Heaven. Perhaps those with really high-end satellite dishes will someday be able to tune into “Eternal Life with Mother Angelica.”