“Heard her speak as a teenager. Changed my life. Led to priesthood. Thank you and RIP, Mother Angelica!”
That March 28 tweet from Father Jeffrey Kirby (@fatherkirby) following the death of Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation is just one of many tributes revealing the impact the late EWTN foundress had on priestly vocations and ministry. Whether her teaching, speaking and programs led men to conversion and inspired them to consider priesthood, shored up their faith or influenced their apostolates, the charismatic contemplative’s reach clearly extended in a special way to Catholic clergy.
In particular, her holy boldness and reverence for the Mass and Eucharist, devotion to the Rosary and fidelity to the teachings of the Church captured the imaginations of younger men who were discerning priesthood at a time of growing secularization.
For Father Kirby, an author and priest of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., who is completing a doctorate at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, hearing Mother speak at a Marian conference in St. Louis in 1994, when he was a senior in high school, was life-altering. She got his attention right away with a joke, he said, but then launched into a powerful talk on the Eucharist, confession and the Blessed Mother. “I had never seen anyone speak about Jesus or discipleship with such passion, conviction and joy.”
Before that conference, Father Kirby said, he had a lot of knowledge about God, but Mother made him realize he didn’t have a relationship with him. “I could tell that she knew Jesus Christ, and she really wanted me to know him, too. ... Knowledge and words weren’t enough. I had to really get to know Jesus.”
Father Kirby said the conviction Mother Angelica modeled that day and the summons she gave resonated in his heart and led him to go to Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio, where his desire to know Christ was affirmed and nurtured. But he believes it was Mother who planted the seed that helped him recognize his call to the priesthood. “In many respects, I could say that Mother Angelica is the godmother of my priestly vocation.”
In a similar way, Michael French, a novice in the Fathers of Mercy community in Auburn, Ky., calls Mother Angelica his spiritual mother. Although as a young man he was hearing a call to priesthood, he lacked the spiritual support that would have fostered it. “So I went to college and got a job and wanted to get as far away from the idea of being a priest as possible.”
Working as an aerospace engineer in Orlando, Fla., he said, “I started living totally according to my will.” But while channel-surfing one day, he came upon EWTN and a nun who fit “that picture of a nun everybody has in their minds.”
He started watching everything he could, learned to pray the Rosary and, through Mother’s influence, received the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time. (He had managed somehow to avoid it, despite having received the sacraments of initiation.) “Mother reached me at a time when no one else could have,” he said.
As French saw faithful priests on EWTN, he began to revisit the call to priesthood and was especially drawn to the Fathers of Mercy. “I realized that’s the kind of priest I wanted to seek out and seek to become.” He entered the community in June and will begin seminary in August.
Franciscan Father Sean Sheridan, the president of Franciscan University, said on EWTN Radio’s March 30 Morning Glory show that watching priests and religious on EWTN television also got him thinking about priesthood, while he was working as a lawyer in California in the 1990s. “[It] really started stirring things in my own heart to go deeper into prayer and asking what it was that God was inviting me to do,” he said.
EWTN’s foundress also provided support for the vocation of Father Nathan Cromly, a priest of the Community of St. John studying at Walsh University in Mother Angelica’s hometown of Canton, Ohio. During a time of confusion about the true teachings of the Church, Father Cromly said, “Mother was just in the Catholic air that I breathed. I remember and I benefited from her presence and teaching on EWTN during the years of searching and questioning that I experienced in high school and college, and her voice was a constant beacon of light and a word of truth that really guided me to know and hear the Church’s magisterium when the voice of the Church wasn’t as easy to access.”
Father Cromly said he was encouraged as well by the way Mother Angelica spoke of the priesthood with reverence and emphasized the priest’s mystical and spiritual role.
“I just did not hear that kind of talk coming from a lot of other quarters around me,” he said, “and so hearing it said forcefully and beautifully taught me that I could love the priesthood in the same way and that if I ever would be ordained a priest, I’d better be the kind of priest Mother Angelica would be proud of.”
In his priesthood, Father Cromly said Mother Angelica and her reliance on Providence have inspired the ministries he has started. These include the fledgling St. John Institute, which will form evangelizers for the New Evangelization, and Eagle Eye Ministries, which forms young people in the faith and has been featured on EWTN.
The institute will combine spiritual formation with business training, giving graduates “a missionary’s heart and an entrepreneur’s mind” and carrying on “the tradition of a dynamic orthodoxy that Mother Angelica and EWTN espoused and exemplified for us.”
Similarly, Father Cromly likes to think that Mother’s legacy of fighting for the beauty of the Catholic Tradition lives on in Eagle Eye Ministries. “What Mother Angelica and EWTN fought for is bearing fruit. They were able to hand down a way of living our Catholic life that I am now privileged to continue to hand down through these ministries.”
Among members of the Legion of Christ, Mother Angelica was always a topic of conversation, as an example of holiness having an impact on the world with big ideas, said Father John Connor, territorial director of the Legion for North America. “A consecrated soul like herself, having the supernatural spirit to create such an evangelization empire and being so holy and detached at the same time from the world, was a real example.”
Father Leo Patalinghug, a member of the Voluntas Dei community, who is host of EWTN’s Savoring Our Faith cooking show and founder of Grace Before Meals, an apostolate that encourages family meals, credits Mother Angelica and the network with giving him the opportunity to develop his priestly calling in media. He had been working on the secular Food Network, and, because of that, EWTN asked him to do a show integrating food and faith.
“That’s when I felt called to doing this as a true apostolate,” he said. “I was doing work for other networks media-wise, but Mother Angelica gave me the media home to really spread the Grace Before Meals message. ... Really, this was a great risk, perhaps, that EWTN took, but that’s up Mother’s alley. She’s a risk-taker.”
When Mother Angelica stepped out in faith to build the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., in 1999, Father Scott Courtney, now a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., remembers her saying to priests, “Fathers, don’t make Pizza Huts for churches. Make beautiful houses of God.” Years later, that inspired him to restore St. Anthony Church in Steinauer, Neb., where he is pastor.
Like many older churches, the Romanesque church with 44-foot ceilings had undergone a 1960s renovation that led to removal of the communion rail and side altars and installation of carpeting. When Father Courtney encountered resistance to the restoration, he said, “[Mother’s] passion for the temple she built helped me to say, ‘We’re doing this, and we’re going to do it beautifully for God.’”
Perhaps nowhere, however, has Mother Angelica’s influence on priestly vocations and ministry been felt more powerfully than among the Irondale, Ala.-based Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word she founded in 1987. The community’s apostolate is to communicate the Catholic faith by word and example through the media, publishing and retreats.
Father Paschal Mary Yohe, who serves as the community’s vocation director, started watching Mother on EWTN when he began to take his faith seriously as a high-school sophomore in Huron, Ohio. He later met her as a seminarian for the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, when he traveled to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville in 2003 for a retreat and pilgrimage.
Although he recalled that she couldn’t speak well then, because of a stroke, Father Paschal said Mother nonetheless inspired him to preach the faith and to catechize. He later joined the Franciscan Missionaries after four years as a diocesan seminarian. “I came to the community desiring to continue [Mother’s] work and the work of EWTN,” he said. “To give my life in this way was possible because she founded the community.”
Father Paschal said in the wake of Mother’s death, the friars feel even more that carrying on her mission falls in large part to them. “Laypeople may assist, but to guide this cart, as Mother Angelica told the friars, to pull the cart as the donkey, this is now our task. I think we are humbled by that.”
Judy Roberts writes from