I’m only an infrequent viewer of Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), founded by Mother Angelica, because it is carried on cable television, which our household doesn’t have.
Despite this obvious impoverishment, our failure to subscribe to cable TV hasn’t measurably diminished our happiness, what with HBO’s Sopranos available at our local video store and all. Although I was born around the same time I Love Lucy premiered, television of any kind was scarce in my childhood. Around the time of my First Holy Communion and the early Wagon Train, our family’s TV went mysteriously on the fritz, sabotaged, we always suspected, by our hyperliterate father. By the time Dad had replaced it, I was nearly graduated from Notre Dame and old enough to patronize a South Bend tavern where, for a buck, I could purchase a chance to throw a brick at the screen above the bar while Howard Cosell was announcing Monday Night Football. The proceeds from this week-long lottery were providently applied to the acquisition of a new set by the time the place reopened on Tuesday afternoon. I never won.
Reading Raymond Arroyo’s account of the adventures of Mother Angelica brought the memory of that brick-throwing lottery vividly to mind. I suspect more than a few American bishops, Catholic academics, professional liturgists, and ecclesiastical bureaucrats would enthusiastically participate in a similar game if this Poor Clare Nun of Perpetual Adoration were the iconic target. Difficult as it may be not to admire a woman who has earned the wrath of such people, and satisfying as it may be to follow the institutional jujitsu by which she deftly hamstrung a bunch of fatuous and condescending hierarchs, Mother Angelica’s “remarkable story” makes disagreeable reading nevertheless.
The most conspicuous concern of Arroyo’s narrative is what he describes as Mother Angelica’s “public and private war for the future of the Catholic Church.” Arroyo is EWTN’s news director and anchorman, and his reconnaissance of the battlefield is as predictable and prepackaged as anything else on big network news: on one side are Our Lord, Mother Angelica, and EWTN. On the other are “recreant bishops and theologians” and the “liberal church in America,” an amorphous conspiracy promoting eucharistic irreverence, gender-inclusive liturgical language, and altar girls. This is a television story, after all, apparently aimed at a studio audience, complete with Good Guys, Bad Guys, flashing applause signs, idiot cards, and ample cues for when to “ooh” and when to “aww.”
What readers make of the story will likely depend on which side they choose to take in this war, or whether they believe such a war is going on to begin with. By any measure, the most compelling part of the story concerns the hardscrabble first twenty-one years of Rita Antoinette Rizzo’s life in her hometown of Canton, Ohio, long before she entered religious life, changed her name, and became a televangelical legend. It is a commonplace of the Depression era: Her father was meanspirited, abusive, and largely absent, and her mother was weak, self-pitying, and emotionally tyrannical. Her parents were divorced when Rita was seven years old, and she and her mother, Mae, found themselves dependent on sporadic child-support payments, a precarious laundry and dry-cleaning business, and the grudging hospitality of Mae’s saloon-keeping parents.
As if to round out this joyless childhood, Rita suffered a series of excruciating intestinal ailments that, whether psychosomatic or not, nearly killed her and, in any event, foreshadowed the dismal physical health that would burden her for the rest of her life.
Frustrated by the inadequacy of local physicians to address Rita’s most recent affliction—a discolored and painful abdominal lump—one day her mother took her to see Rhoda Wise, a mystic and stigmatic who claimed to receive regular visions of Jesus and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and who had a reputation for working miraculous cures. Wise suggested a novena and obtained a promise from Rita that she would help spread devotion to the Little Flower if she was cured. On the ninth day of the novena, the lump and the pain vanished, and Rita’s life changed forever. She was nineteen years old.
“When the Lord came in and healed me through the Little Flower,” Mother Angelica later said, “I had a whole different attitude. I knew there was a God; I knew that God knew me and loved me and was interested in me. I didn’t know that before. All I wanted to do after my healing was give myself to Jesus.”
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity or depth of this desire, which she immediately satisfied by going to Cleveland, over the hysterical objections of her mother, and taking vows in a religious order, the Franciscan Sisters of the Most Blessed Sacrament, now called the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. It is worth noting, as Arroyo makes a point of doing, that some seventy years earlier Pope Pius IX had made the order a pontifical institute that would “answer only to the Holy See in Rome.”
Her relations with other sisters were, as her relations with so many of her coreligionists are now, tumultuous and overly susceptible to what she describes as “my Italian temper.” (A few years before entering the convent, she’d responded to the boorish remarks of an obnoxious uncle by hurling a knife at him. She missed.) But if Angelica’s superiors regarded that short fuse as a handicap, they also noticed in her what one of them called “a business ability beyond the average.”
She had that all right. She quickly became her community’s bookkeeper, “economist,” and bursar. At one point, needing money to support a community she wished to establish in Alabama, she launched an impressively remunerative mail-order business, “St. Peter’s Fishing Lures,” which advertised such items as “Saint Raphael’s Dry Fly,” “Little Jonas,” and “Saint Michael’s Wet Fly.” The brochure included a reassurance that the purpose was “to raise funds to aid the Great Fisherman in His quest for souls. With every lure goes a prayer that He will bless your fishing.”
The transition from fishing lures to television was not terribly difficult for this shrewd woman with a sense of divine mission and an eye for the main chance. She had a quick wit, a gregarious manner, and an evangelical bent. Calling herself “a conservative liberal who happens to be charismatic,” she had become a popular speaker on prayer and the spiritual life and the author of fifty-seven books and pamphlets by 1978, when she visited the studios of Channel 38, a Baptist television station in Chicago, and fell in love with the Queen of Technologies. Arroyo makes the arresting observation that by this time “Mother Angelica had the redemptive message down.”
The rags-to-riches growth of EWTN composes the background of the rest of the story, while the foreground concerns Mother Angelica’s ongoing battle against the encroachments of (American) ecclesial bureaucrats, her enlistment of more highly ranked (Vatican) bureaucrats, and her jeremiads against the dreaded “liberal church in America.” Nobody in these pages comes off very well. If Mother Angelica occasionally seems little more than a foul-tempered old harridan who confuses the promptings of her ego with the imperatives of the Holy Spirit, her opponents just as often seem little more than disingenuous defenders of their own institutional prestige. In their unseemly struggle for control of what amounts to a billion-dollar TV empire, all of these sanctimonious combatants bring to mind the observation made by the Hoosier journalist Kin Hubbard early in the last century, “When a fellow says, ‘It ain’t the money but the principle of the thing,’ it’s the money.” When the principle of the thing is, as Arroyo says, “the future of the Catholic Church,” his whole story reads like a First Commandment violation.
Related: Liturgical Confusion, by the Editors