National Catholic Register



Catholic Television Network Looks to Future Without Its Founder


Register senior writer

August 20-26, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/21/06 at 9:00 AM


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The 5,000 people who descended upon Birmingham’s Convention Center last weekend to help celebrate the Eternal Word Television Network’s silver anniversary called to mind the line, “If you build it, they will come,” made famous by the film Field of Dreams.

Mother Angelica’s dream was to build a Catholic television network in a monastery garage in the heart of Alabama. Build it she did, and the pilgrims haven’t stopped coming. They came by the busloads from nearly every state and several foreign countries to be a part of the network’s final 25th anniversary family celebration. Over the past year, the network has hosted a total of six regional celebrations to mark the network’s founding.

Fan behavior at the celebration was reminiscent of the atmosphere at a rock concert. Young and old ran down the arena’s stairs soon after the doors opened to secure front row seats for Mass. They crowded around the hosts of the network’s live programs asking for autographs, and they had the rare opportunity to have their photos taken with one or more of the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration. To see a young habited nun appeared to be the next best thing to seeing Mother Angelica, who, ailing, was prevented from attending the festivities but watched them from her monastery in Hanceville.

The enthusiasm of the network’s fans served as a testimony to the impact EWTN has made on the lives of so many individuals and their families.

Six-year-old Rebecca White of Memphis, Mich., called EWTN “Jesus TV.” Her parents, Bryan and Deanna White, credit the network with reigniting their faith.

Bryan, an automobile assembly worker with Chrysler, first encountered Mother Angelica while casually flipping through television channels in 1993.

“She planted a seed,” he said.

That seed not only helped led White to learn more about his faith but also led the family to Birmingham. Bryan, Deanna, and their three children made the celebration part of their summer family vacation trip.

Everyone — viewers, employees, and religious — has a story to tell about the network’s impact. They tell stories of conversion, as well as rediscovering the faith of their youth.

Tom Price, director of WEWN Catholic radio, and his wife, Adrianne, told about rediscovering their Catholic faith while living in the Twin Cities several years ago. Siblings Tim and Clare Olson of Fargo, N.D., spoke of how watching EWTN’s coverage of Pope John Paul II’s death and funeral was pivotal.

“That’s when things became cemented,” said Clare, a 27-year-old registered nurse. “It has helped us to become more aware and strengthened our faith.”

Tim Olson is currently a seminarian, studying for the priesthood in the Diocese of Fargo.

Little Network That Could

Perhaps no story, however, is quite as dramatic as that of Rita Rizzo, the woman who overcame a tough upbringing and suffering to become Mother Angelica and founded not only a women’s and men’s religious order but also a global television and radio network.

“Experts didn’t give EWTN much of a chance,” said Michael Warsaw, EWTN’s president. “What did a cloistered nun with myriad health problems, no media experience, and only $200 in the bank know about TV? She dared to do the ridiculous, and God indeed has accomplished the miraculous.”

A significant change took place in the mid-1990s.

“In 1996, I saw the closing of the mom-and-pop approach,” said Raymond Arroyo, news director for EWTN. “There was suddenly an international audience to consider, and it became a little more professional.”

What used to be a technologically-challenged network airing four hours a day only in the United States has now become a 24-hour-a day network that airs multiple-language programming on television.

Today, EWTN transmits to more than 105 million homes in 110 countries and 16 territories. In addition to cable affiliates, its television programs are available through the Dish Network and Direct TV. Its radio programming is available on more than 130 stations, online, on shortwave and on Sirius Satellite Radio.

Yet, Mother Angelica’s total reliance on divine providence led not only to the station’s creation, but also its tremendous growth.

One thing is certain. The network touches lives.

According to Lisa Gould, vice president of viewer services, the network receives approximately 40,000 pieces of mail per month from viewers. That puts Gould in the unique position of seeing exactly how the network impacts lives.

“We see how the network touches souls,” said Gould. She recalled a letter from an 85-year-old woman who was alone.

“She told us that at 3 a.m. she can put the Rosary on and pray with Mother Angelica,” said Gould.

According to Gould, those fruits have included people overcoming addictions, suicides averted, comfort for the terminally ill, and vocations to religious life.

Sister Mary Michelle, 34, is one of about 45 nuns that make up Hanceville’s Poor Clares. She has been a nun for 14 years.

“I used to see my mom watching Mother Angelica, but I didn’t know she had her own order,” said Sister Mary.

Unable to decide what to do after attending two years of college, her mother encouraged her to consider a religious vocation.

“I was clueless about religious life,” said Sister Mary. “So, I wrote to Mother Angelica.”

She received a form letter in response inviting her to visit.

“Try to forget about it,” Sister Mary’s mother advised her. “If you can’t forget about it, go visit.”

Within a month, she had visited. Two weeks later, she entered the monastery.

The network is not without its critics.

Mother Angelica’s public battles with Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and her own bishop led to difficulties for the network. After her contentious run-in with Cardinal Mahony and an ensuing Vatican investigation, of which she was cleared, Mother Angelica made the decision in 2001 to retire and relinquish control of the network to a lay board.

Traditionalist Catholic author Christopher Ferrara’s book “EWTN: A Network Gone Wrong” argues that since Mother Angelica’s departure, the network has slipped into what he describes as “moderate modernism.”

Others contend that through the network theologian’s tight reins on what books and authors are allowed on its programs, it sometimes operates as its own magisterium, preventing even orthodox guests that don’t pass the network’s theological litmus test.

Supporters disagree.

“Any book or author is vetted by our theology department,” explained Doug Keck, vice president for production and programming. “Our concern is for the appearance of endorsing something. We don’t want to endorse something that some people may be disturbed by.”

Arroyo said that there are difficulties that come by virtue of the medium.

“Television is fluid, changing and moving. The Church is lasting and eternal,” said Arroyo. “Therefore EWTN has a difficulty in that the nature of the medium is antithetical to the Church.”

“It’s important for people not to be too critical of something that has accomplished so much with so little,” said Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who serves on the network’s board of directors. “It’s really the only Catholic organization of its kind for the example it gives to the Church about using the most modern technology to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our time.”

“EWTN has provided a stable presence in the Church for those who are faithful,” added Archbishop Chaput. “We have to be thankful to God for that.”

“Without EWTN, the entire Church in America would be liberal,” Friar of the Renewal Father Andrew Apostoli told the crowd gathered in Birmingham. “She [Mother Angelica] stopped it from going over Niagara Falls.”

Lasting Impact

There can be no arguing with the network’s ongoing impact.

“The impact is never ending,” said Teresa Tomeo, host of Ave Maria Radio’s “Catholic Connection.” “I hear from people every day how they are making Catholic media a part of their lives. It draws people in because it is so different from everything else that’s out there in the secular media.”

Others in attendance at the anniversary celebration agreed.

“We’re grateful for all EWTN has done for us,” said Teresa Bonner, a wife and mother from Miami who attended the event with her sister Cristina DeCordoba. “It’s a great tool to help us persevere in our faith and holiness.”

The two sisters spoke of how the network kept them company as young stay-at-home mothers and ultimately led them to become involved in a lay movement.

“EWTN provided 24-hour consolation when I was sick and bedridden while I was pregnant with both of my children,” said DeCordoba.

Angelo and Sandra Cavicchiolo, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, came with a pilgrimage group from Michigan.

“I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about my faith,” said Sandra. “EWTN made me more aware.”

Supporters believe that the network fills an important role in the Church.

“The power of truth is the root of EWTN,” said Deacon Bill Steltemeier, chairman of the board. “The beauty of the faith and the Church is not ordinarily preached. With EWTN you can turn on the network and believe and trust what you hear.”

Where will EWTN be 25 years from now? That seems up to the Holy Spirit.

“The question is what direction will EWTN ultimately take?” said Arroyo. “How can we use the great instrument that Mother Angelica and God have given us and use that for contemporary realities? There is a great sensitivity on the part of everyone at EWTN to keep an eye on the legacy and mission as articulated by Mother and being sensitive to our audience and their needs. There are always going to be growing pains with that.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.


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