EWTN CEO Michael Warsaw Reflects on Life and Legacy of Mother Angelica on Her 100th Birthday
Reflecting on Mother Angelica and the network, CEO and chairman Michael Warsaw said, ‘It’s the centrality of the Eucharist... It’s what grounds us. It’s what makes us who we are…’
Thursday, April 20, marked the 100th birthday of the late Mother Angelica, the formidable Franciscan nun who founded the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) headquartered in Irondale, Alabama. Born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio, in 1923, she eventually became a Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration and captured the hearts of audiences around the world through her television show Mother Angelica Live. Before her death on March 27, 2016, Mother Angelica also founded the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Alabama.
In honor of her 100th birthday, EWTN CEO Michael Warsaw sat down with Montse Alvarado, president and COO of EWTN News, to share his personal reflections about Mother Angelica’s life and legacy. (EWTN is the parent company of CNA and the National Catholic Register) An abbreviated version of the interview will air on Friday, April 21, on EWTN News In Depth. Here is the full interview, adapted for print.
Michael, there’s no one better to talk to about Mother Angelica’s legacy than you. You knew her better than everyone else. Tell me a little bit about what it was like being with her.
Well, I was very, very blessed to spend so much time with Mother over the years, especially those last 10 active years that she had before her stroke. I was really blessed to be able to be with her almost every day, to be able to talk with her, to work alongside her, to be able, in many ways, to take her vision for EWTN and many of the projects that she wanted to accomplish and to implement those. So that was just such a great blessing to me in my life.
I remember the first time I met her was 1988. I was the communications director at the basilica here in Washington, D.C., at that time. And I went to Birmingham to meet with Mother to talk about EWTN collaborating and televising Masses, which we still do to this day. And I remember sitting in her office at the network and we chatted and talked about not just the project but many things for a couple of hours. And it was just an incredible experience; my first introduction to meeting her in person.
In some ways you could say I had met her several years before via television. When I was in college in the early ’80s, I went home to visit my mother, and as college students do when they’re at home, you channel surf, looking for something to watch. And I remember coming across this nun who was doing this television show and I had no idea who Mother Angelica was. I had no idea what EWTN was. And I remember sitting there at 11 p.m. at night watching Mother Angelica doing a show and thinking she’s pretty remarkable. All things in God’s providence, one thing led to another. I had that meeting with her at EWTN and then a couple of years later she invited me to come and be a part of the EWTN employee family. So Jackie and I readily moved to Birmingham, and the rest is history, as they say.
What’s fascinating to me also is that when I sat with Mother in that office in 1988, I had no idea, first of all, that in just a couple of years I would be leaving Washington and coming to Birmingham to be a part of EWTN. But I certainly had no idea that even just a few more years down the road that that would be my office and that I would be succeeding her in her role.
Her character — spicy Italian lady, entrepreneurial force, but also incredibly pious — what did you experience with her? What was that relationship like?
Well, it was all of that. I think one of the great things about Mother Angelica was that who you saw on the air was who she was off the air. There was no television persona, which sometimes, as we know, can be the case with folks in the television industry. She was who she was on air and off air. She was a remarkable businesswoman, and that was a grace from God. She obviously had no training or no real education in business, as she would say. She barely had a high school education. God didn’t give her those gifts early on, but he gave her the graces and the gifts to do that.
I can remember being in many a meeting with a vendor or salesperson who was trying to get EWTN to buy their product or do something thinking, this is a nun; I can just sort of push her over and do this deal. And they walked out of there, hat in hand, because they had really come into contact with a major business force. She had remarkable skills in that sense.
She was like a mother to the employees of the network — incredibly caring, incredibly generous. And so she had that, in a way, motherly, grandmotherly sort of side as well.
And it was clear that this is a woman of deep, deep faith. She was a cloistered nun. She spent far more hours of her day in front of the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel than she ever did in front of a camera or behind a desk or involved in the work of the network.
So that was her foundation, that was her grounding, to be in front of the Blessed Sacrament, to live a life of prayer, to live a life of a cloistered Poor Clare nun. She brought that into her interaction with the network and into her work with the network. And so you would have conversations with her sometimes and I would joke about the tone of her voice. She would share something that was going on and a concern, a worry, and she would tell you, “It’s going to be fine, sweetheart.” And there was a tone to that that said to you, it's going to be fine, because she‘s talked to God about this, she’s prayed about this, and she‘s telling you, It’s going to be fine because she has that confidence.
So [it was a] remarkable experience. One of the greatest joys and blessings of my life was to be able to spend those years and that time with her, and … it was a great blessing for my family, Jackie and our children, particularly our son Michael, who grew up around Mother Angelica, who has memories of [her] holding his hand and taking him through the new monastery in Hanceville that was under construction or in so many other ways. Mother Angelica was just an incredible part of our life as a family and my own life and faith.
Michael, you’ve led the growth and expansion of EWTN in a way that Mother could only imagine. Do you miss her?
Absolutely. I miss her every day. I miss being able to share things with her, getting her perspective, and her reminders. Sometimes I even miss her corrections and admonishing me to look at something in a different way, that I was being too worldly, maybe, and I needed to think of it in another way. I miss that. But I think there’s no question in my mind that right now, Mother Angelica is doing her most important work for EWTN and for all of us involved in the apostolate of EWTN. She’s doing their most important work ever now by advocating, by interceding for us, with Our Lord. And there’s no question that in the years since — first of all, she had her stroke and stepped away from EWTN — but in these last seven years, since her death, so many doors have opened, so many incredible blessings have been bestowed on EWTN, and really, by following her original approach to trust in God’s providence and all that we do. But I miss her.
With her stroke, with her physical decline, she allowed us, her public, her viewers, to enter into her suffering in a way that Pope Francis has said is really important to walk with the elderly as they decline, but also with those who are sick. She kind of pioneered this idea of allowing us to enter into that and valuing those who are elderly or sick in a different way.
Absolutely. I think, as we both know, television personas sometimes want to be very careful about how they present themselves. And that was not her… So when she would have an asthma attack while she was trying to do a show or she was struggling with some physical ailment or another, she shared that. She didn’t stop the show because she had a coughing fit; she just took a cough drop and went on.
I think we saw, though, that most poignantly, when she had the first of her strokes in 2001. She first had a smaller stroke that left her with some issues with her eye, and she had to wear an eye patch. Most people would never go on television with an eye patch and a little bit of a droopy face, but she never thought of not going on television. And part of the reason was because she felt like she needed to be there for her family, and she needed to be a witness to her family. She needed to encourage people to understand that these sufferings, these physical ailments, are a gift from God that need to be embraced and that people should offer up and use for good when those opportunities came about.
And in the days and weeks following that, when she began to appear on the air, we heard from enormous numbers of people who were stroke victims who said, because you could go on TV and be who you are that gave me the strength to go out of my home for the first time in years and to go out and to be in the community. We heard countless, countless stories like that. So she had a profound understanding of the importance of suffering, of not wasting suffering, and of using that to accomplish great good.
You hear these stories, we hear these stories, at the network every day. People whose lives are changed by praying alongside Mother Angelica. There’s a great story of a man recently who explained how during COVID as he was hospitalized, he heard her voice on TV and he prayed the Our Father with her and it gave him the strength to fight to stay alive, to come back to his family. Is this the purpose of the network?
Absolutely. I think there’s no question that Mother Angelica founded EWTN to invite every person who heard the network’s offerings to come into a closer relationship with Our Lord to understand and to grow in their love for Jesus. That’s why she founded it. And she would always say if the network was created and we did all of this to save just one soul, it would all be worth it.
And we see that, as you said, day in and day out in the reactions from people all over the world now who are impacted by the work of EWTN. It’s not the work that we do. And Mother was very conscious of this, you know. Sometimes people ask me, what’s the iconic phrase of Mother Angelica? So I always say, “Dare to do the ridiculous so that God can accomplish the miraculous.” And I think that in the eyes of the world, when she began EWTN in 1980 and then went on the air in 1981, people were like, a cloistered nun doing a television channel? This is crazy. Alabama? Sheep and goats and some nuns? This is ridiculous.
Catholics in Alabama...
Exactly. But she understood that, though. She understood that to the world this was utterly ridiculous. But it wasn’t ridiculous in the eyes of God. She said yes to that call from God because she knew that through those efforts, through all of these things that she would do that we continue to do, that in the eyes of the world are ridiculous, God would accomplish miraculous things and he has for these past four decades. And that’s really the story of her life — reliance on providence, reliance on God’s providence in all things, and saying yes to what he has asked her and asked us to do so that he can accomplish the miraculous. That’s how these miracles occur. That’s how these people, as in the case you mentioned, are able to have these incredible transformations of faith. It’s through the efforts of a simple nun who said yes to the miraculous.
It’s incredible. Is there a Mother Angelica story that you can share that our viewers haven’t heard before?
Well, there are many, many Mother stories. One that I’ve probably not told very much [took place in] the 1990s when we were working to begin to build the international television channels, which now exist all over the world. We were struggling to get that going. And as with all things with Mother and EWTN we often didn’t have the money to do what we wanted.
So one day, after we had been meeting and as we did every day virtually for several hours I would always, at the end of our meetings, walk her back through the network and back up to the cloister. And so we finished a meeting and were walking down the hallway and there’s a glass hallway that looks out over the satellite dishes on the back of EWTN. And she stopped and she kind of looked out and said, “When your wife really wants something and she continues to nag at you and nag at you about that and say that she wants it, do you eventually give in to her?” And I laughed and I said, ”Absolutely, Mother. Absolutely.” And she said, “Well, you know, that’s what I’m doing with Our Lord. I figure if I nag him continually about getting us what we need to do this launch, eventually he’s got to give in, right?”
There were a couple of things I took away from that. It’s a funny story, but it underscored — along with many other experiences in my life and times with Mother — how deeply personal her relationship with Our Lord was. She saw her relationship with Christ as her spouse, as a religious, just as deeply, just as personally, just as tangibly as I saw my relationship with my own wife. That was a great gift, I think, to be able to see that and to see that in her. And that helped certainly deepen my own relationship with Our Lord to see that witness with her. And of course, as in all things, Mother Angelica did what she said she would do. She continued to nag Our Lord and a few weeks later we got the funding from a donor to be able to move forward with the project and to begin the work on it. So all things in providence.
All things in providence. And it almost makes you feel like in her giving of herself to Our Lord in that way, it also fueled why she was so fiercely defensive of Our Lord and the Church and the Eucharist.
Absolutely. So, yes, there were many instances along the way where she spoke up in defense of the Eucharist, in defense of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. She was very adamant about that. But it’s precisely, as you say, because of the depth of that personal relationship that was a deeply felt attack on her spouse. She felt that tangibly, physically. And so the depth, the strength of her response in those situations comes from the nature of that relationship that she had with Our Lord. And so if you understand that about Mother, you understand why at times she reacted as strongly as she did. And thank God she did.
The moment that we’re in right now with the Eucharist, this Eucharistic Revival, we’re seeing processions start. The family celebration for EWTN is going to include a procession around this beautiful campus [in Irondale]. And that tells us a lot about where we are as American Catholics. What would Mother make of this moment?
So I think Mother would certainly be profoundly saddened by the polling and all the data that shows the decline and the loss of belief in the Real Presence. But I think she would be incredibly happy and excited to see the Eucharistic Revival, to see all of these efforts going on, to see devotion to Our Lord and the Blessed Sacrament being reemphasized through all sorts of means — whether it’s the eucharistic processions that are happening so much more frequently, or 24-hour adoration — all of these things. She would be, I think, very, very happy to see that because for her, she was a Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration. Her entire life as a religious was built around and focused on Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. And that’s why when she built EWTN — the chapel and the Blessed Sacrament is at the heart of EWTN and remains so today. It’s physically the center of the campus in Irondale. It’s the hub, in a sense, of all of the work that goes on not just in Irondale but all over the world every single day. It’s that centrality of the Eucharist that is a part of EWTN and the apostolate of EWTN. It’s what grounds us. It’s what makes us who we are.
It invigorates all that we do. How would Mother want us to celebrate her 100th birthday?
Well, Mother never wanted things to be about her, so I think in this moment of her centenary she would want us to be focusing our attention on Our Lord. And the greatest gift that we could give to Mother Angelica would be to go to Our Lord to pray, to do a holy hour, to spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and to deepen our relationship with Our Lord. That’s the gift that she would want.
On this 100th anniversary of Mother Angelica’s life, but also coming into the 40-plus years of the legacy of EWTN, what would she think about how it’s grown, how it’s changed, how you’ve made it evolve?
I think she’d probably say, as she often did, “That’s just awesome.” That was one of her favorite words. I remember one time talking with her and asking her, “Did you ever think that EWTN would be what it is today?” And this was long before we had expanded in the way that we have now. And she said, “Oh, sweetheart, I was just worried about getting through one day to the next; I never thought about what it might be somewhere down the road.” I think she’d be very, very happy about what EWTN has become and how it has continued to stay true to that mission of allowing God to accomplish the miraculous through the work that EWTN does.
And her vision for the future… Is there something she would say, “I want one of those!”?
I think Mother Angelica would say that we should continue to explore every avenue to reach people with the message of the Gospel and to reach people with the message that Jesus loves them and whatever that is, whatever that takes, whatever platform or technology or means that is, that we should pursue that. And that’s what we have done. We have always embraced every platform, every method to carry out the mission, and we will continue to do so in the way that the Holy Spirit inspires us and God willing, that he blesses and guides us.
Is there anything else you want to tell our viewers to remember about her?
Well, I think that she was incredibly generous and incredibly kind. And I think sometimes her foes, both in the Church and out of the Church, painted her in a way that was not fair and not accurate. She was an incredibly kind and generous person who loved Our Lord with all of her heart and gave her life to him as religious, but also as one of the greatest evangelists of our time. A remarkable woman and one whom we should emulate. We should emulate her trust in God. I think we should emulate her willingness to say yes. When called to do the ridiculous by God, always say yes. If we said yes more often, imagine how much the world would be transformed.