This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register on April 1, 2016.
Imagine the Catholic landscape had Rita Rizzo never been born in Canton, Ohio in 1923. No one expected worldwide fame for such an ordinary girl from a poor and troubled family. And no one would have blamed Rita if she backed away from challenges in which she had no expertise. Yet, the ordinary girl who became Mother Mary Angelica, a Poor Clare Nun of Perpetual Adoration, grew into the greatest media mogul of all times, touching millions upon millions of lives.
It’s impossible to measure the extent of Mother Angelica’s reach as founder of the world’s largest religious media outlet, the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN). She became one of the most spiritually influential persons in the history of the world, reaching over 264 million homes in 145 countries and territories daily. There is much more to her media accomplishments, but the immensity of what Mother Angelica has done can best be measured in how she deeply affected untold lives for over 34 years. By creating a Catholic media empire to feed the spirits of everyday people, her reach spread into almost every corner of Catholicism.
How Simplicity Became Greatness
Having read many of the books that Mother Angelica wrote and those written about her, it’s clear that God was running the show and Mother was merely a do-do for him, as she liked to say. It is through people like Mother Angelica and Mother Teresa that we come to understand that God just needs us to show up and he will do the rest. Mother often said that following God is always a walk of faith and, “unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.” One of the quotes she kept in her notes was this from St. Augustine: “Do what you can and pray for what you cannot yet do.”
Interview with Raymond Arroyo
Several years ago, I interviewed Raymond Arroyo, a long time friend of Mother Angelica, news director and anchor of EWTN News, and host of The World Over. He first met Mother Angelica in 1995 and later wrote her biography. Arroyo explained that Mother understood a life with crosses since she grew up poor, had many health problems, her parents divorced when she was six-years-old, and she was raised by a difficult mother. Mother Angelica even suffered through a “dark night of the soul” period in her life.
“While Mother’s thoughts and prayers were not unlike our own, she was building an empire against all odds,” Arroyo explained. “She was all about doing God’s will. Mother used to say, ‘God doesn’t send you a gold-leaf invitation; we have to be responsive to what God is calling us to do right now. His will is manifested in the responsibilities of the present moment.’”
In The Prayers and Personal Devotions of Mother Angelica, Arroyo explained that Mother Angelica’s prayerful conversations with God were much like a never-ending phone calls. He said that she never put God on hold and even during a bad connection — her dark night of the soul — she kept trusting that He was there. “Mother liked to say that if we are going to spend eternity with God, we’d better learn to talk to Him,” Arroyo said.
But the story of her life and the secrets of her prayers were not the complete story. It was her message that touched lives. Arroyo explained that he hears such stories everywhere he goes. “For instance, at a book signing, a man came up to me with his wife and daughter and said, ‘I want you to meet these two people. Mother brought them back into my life after five years. I came across her book and opened it and what was in there convicted me.’ The man repented and returned to his family.”
Following Her Example
Mother Angelica’s life was proof that God does not call the equipped but rather equips those he calls. Her example has given confidence to so many others to do the same. Just recently, during an interview with Father David Simonetti, associate pastor of St. James Parish in Sauk Village, Chicago, I heard what I’ve heard so many times before: “Mother Angelica is my example. She gave me the courage.”
Fr. Simonetti had shared with me how he created “Cummunio” gourmet pizza sauces—a new specialty product in which all the proceeds will go to charities that help sick children and towards local Catholic education. He gives the credit to Mother Angelica. Businessmen initially brushed his idea off. “They didn’t give me the time of day,” he said. “I had read Mother Angelica’s life story three times and had been on EWTN [TV] four times, talking about Eucharist adoration and spiritual direction.” One of the times that Father Simonetti was at the EWTN studios he was permitted to talk with Mother Angelica over the phone. “She said just one word, over and over: trust,” he said.
Through her inspiration, Father Simonetti said he took everything to prayer and then, with Mother’s same dogged spirit, he trusted. Then through a series of amazing coincidences, everything fell into place and his sauces are now ready for distribution.
Accomplish Your Own Goals
Mother Angelica wanted us to follow her example of openness to God’s directions. She cautioned people not to follow their own lead and then expect God to help. Instead, she stressed to wait on the Lord for direction.
In her book Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises she related a time when she ended up on the wrong plane and landed in California rather than her intended destination in New York. “There was nothing wrong with the plane, it was a perfectly good plane,” she recounted, “but it wasn’t my plane.” Her point was that there is perfectly good work to be done but what matters is being open to what God wants you to do.
“Reading her life story, it's obvious that this was much bigger than this one woman,” said Dan Burke, the executive director of the National Catholic Register, founder of Spiritual Direction.com and president of the Avila Institute. It was EWTN that took over the National Catholic Register in 2011, saving it from ending publication. “Her ‘yes’ has reverberated throughout the world,” he said. “There is not a single diocese in the US that has not been touched by her. Outside of John Paul II, I cannot think of a single individual that has had more of an influence in the Church America.”
Mother Angelica did not do anything different than what we all should be doing—saying yes to God every moment of our lives. In that way, our smallness does not matter because his greatness will determine the outcomes. Whether in the midst of building an empire or paralyzed in bed, Mother Angelica showed us that the power was in her yes to God—the same power he gives to us all.