On May 2, the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word mark a milestone: the 25th anniversary of their founding.
“There is significance that Mother Angelica started EWTN to defend Jesus Christ, and we were founded on the feast of St. Athanasius, a doctor of the Church, defender of the divinity of Jesus Christ and the ‘Father of Orthodoxy,’” said Father Joseph Wolfe.
Today, Father Joseph serves as chaplain to EWTN’s 350 employees. He entered the fledgling community as a founding member in May 2, 1987, eventually becoming the first priest ordained for this new Public Clerical Association of the Faithful in 1993. The name of the friary is Annunciation Friary. It was dedicated on the EWTN grounds appropriately on March 25, 1994. Like St. Gabriel the Archangel, the patron of communications, the friars are also called to announce the Good News of the Eternal Word.
“Mother Angelica wanted us to be a spiritual support for the television network,” explained Father Joseph. He uses the analogy that the cloistered nuns are to be the heart of the mission and the friars and EWTN are to be the voice of the mission.
“You need both of them,” he said. “That is why the Church has two patrons for her missionary activity. One is St. Francis Xavier, who many claim is the greatest missionary after St. Paul. The other is St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who was a cloistered nun who never left the monastery.”
“With the heart of the nuns’ monastery and shrine and the voice of the friars and EWTN, we work together to bring the Gospel more fruitfully to many,” Father Joseph said.
The friars provide for the spiritual needs of the nuns as well as of the pilgrims who visit EWTN in Irondale, Ala., and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala. They hear confessions seven days a week and give spiritual talks.
“We spend a lot of hours hearing a lot of confessions for people who come to EWTN and the shrine,” said Father Anthony Mary, the friars’ community servant, the title for the superior.
He’s amazed by how many come to confession who have been away from church a very long time or who want to live their faith more fully.
The friars also operate TV cameras, direct live shows and give tours. Father Mark Mary co-hosts the popular weekly show Life on the Rock, while Brother Leo produces the children’s Hey, Brother Leo.
Today, there are 17 Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word (MFVA) friars who are priests or brothers. Twelve are in perpetual profession. On June 2, two men will be ordained to the transitional deaconate and two to the priesthood, increasing MFVA priests’ numbers to seven.
Father Joseph, who also hosted Faith in the Heartland, begins the day with intercom prayers for employees and sends them spiritual messages via email, per his chaplain duties.
The friars are most often the celebrants for the daily televised Mass on EWTN. The Mass has been one of the most-watched offerings on the Catholic network since its debut in 1991. The decision was made that year to televise the Mass because it was wartime — the Gulf War had begun.
What many viewers might not fully realize is how often the EWTN friars not only look after the faithful sheep, but fulfill their motto: “The lost I will seek out; the strays I will bring back” (Ezekiel 34:16).
“The thing that encourages me the most in our apostolate,” Father Joseph said, “is receiving emails and letters from all over the world from people who have returned to the faith or converted to the faith because of EWTN.” He also hears from people personally at EWTN and the Hanceville shrine.
Among countless examples: A woman in prison wrote to say she had learned so much through the network that she wanted to enter the Catholic faith. A young man wrote from England to say he was strongly influenced by secular society, then began watching EWTN; he is now studying for the priesthood. A former prisoner came to visit and said that when the warden planned to remove EWTN from the TV lineup, he and other prisoners insisted EWTN stay. He said EWTN changed his life.
Then there’s the time when Father Joseph was a young priest and a young mother and her child came to the friary. The mother explained that she lived near the shortwave radio facility, and when she picked up her telephone, she heard EWTN. He told the woman the engineers could fix that problem. She said, “No.” She hadn’t come to fix it, but to say,
“I’ve been listening to your programs, and I want to become Catholic.”
Peter Gagnon, EWTN’s director of programming and productions, finds their spiritual guidance and friendship an important part of his life.
“I see the way they interact with people who come on pilgrimage and those touched by EWTN and the friars, especially knowing them through daily Mass,” he said.
Personally, during his own extended sickness, he said, “the friars were an incredible asset in my life and my family’s life as well.” They brought Communion to the hospital and his home. They supported his wife, Sharon, and their six young children.
“Father Mark would come every Sunday evening to our house and bring Communion and hang out, too,” Gagnon said.
Even at work, amid the daily grind, “they were always there for me.”
The friars also pray for EWTN’s benefactors and the intentions viewers send in on a daily basis.
“Mother really did want us to do that,” Father Anthony said. “That’s a necessary component of EWTN. As priests and brothers, we can take those to God and intercede on behalf of these viewers.”
Looking back, Father Joseph said, “EWTN has had and continues to have a tremendous role in rebuilding the Church, through catechesis, preaching the Gospel and inspiring people to live lives of greater charity.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
Father Anthony invites any young man considering a call to Franciscan life and work with this apostolate to visit FranciscanMissionaries.com and contact the friars.