EWTN at 40: Vatican Blessing Mother Angelica Received Remains Vital Key

Providential 1981 Meeting With Cardinal Silvio Oddi Played a Part

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, celebrates a memorial Mass for EWTN foundress Mother Angelica on the fifth anniversary of her passing March 27 in St. Peter’s Basilica
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, celebrates a memorial Mass for EWTN foundress Mother Angelica on the fifth anniversary of her passing March 27 in St. Peter’s Basilica (photo: Pablo Esparza / CNA)

VATICAN CITY — As the EWTN Global Catholic Network celebrates the 40th anniversary of its television launch, just how influential was the Vatican in getting the network off the ground, and how does the Holy See view Mother Angelica’s groundbreaking achievement today?

Preparations for the launch had been proceeding well by early 1981. Mother Angelica had already received a Federal Communications Commission license to operate the first Catholic satellite television service in the United States, and although debt was threatening the network even before it had begun, the Poor Clare abbess was set to receive a loan large enough to enable it to launch. 

But as Raymond Arroyo explains in his 2006 book Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles, a major obstacle suddenly emerged that threatened to derail all of Mother’s efforts, and only the Vatican was able to resolve it. 

Trouble began when respected theologian Jesuit Father John Hardon, whom Mother Angelica had tapped to review the orthodoxy of the network’s programming, unwittingly threw her project into disarray by privately sharing with a Vatican official his concerns about a cloistered abbess traveling across the country with regularity. For more than a decade, Mother had been traveling to give spiritual talks, which were an important source of the network’s income and start-up capital.

Learning of the situation, the Congregation for Religious shared these concerns about a traveling cloistered nun and notified Bishop Joseph Vath of Birmingham, Alabama, to say that although Mother Angelica could leave her cloister to visit her studio, she was forbidden from traveling anymore. 

Pledged financial support was swiftly withdrawn, future talks were canceled, and frantic efforts to have the decision reversed — including enlisting the help of the then-apostolic delegate to the U.S., Archbishop Pio Laghi — all failed. 

Bishop Vath presented Mother Angelica with two options: exclaustration or no travel. 

“A no-return situation was thrown in my face,” Mother is quoted as saying in Arroyo’s book. “If you want this, take your habit off. I was shocked by that.” Despite satellite dishes arriving in Irondale and the network on the brink of broadcasting for the first time, the whole project was suddenly placed in doubt. 

Spurred on through prayer, a vision from a fellow sister, and a large providential donation, Mother Angelica refused to be deterred. By May, she had realized she would need the assistance from the Vatican to solve her dilemma. 

Cardinal Silvio Oddi, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, was in New York, and Mother thought he could intervene — but she had to meet him face-to-face. Due to the travel restriction, she could not travel to see him, so Deacon Bill Steltemeier, an attorney and EWTN’s founding president, convinced a tired and busy Cardinal Oddi to travel to Birmingham by chartered private jet (paid for by a generous benefactor) and meet her. On arrival, Cardinal Oddi was given a royal tour, wrote in the monastery guestbook that “the Lord reward most generously this small group of consecrated nuns,” and asked at the end of his visit what they needed. 

Mother Angelica and Deacon Steltemeier explained the situation, the cardinal promised to fix it, and, within days, the cardinal had secured the necessary permission for Mother to carry out her television work without jeopardizing her consecrated status. Thanks to much prayer and the assistance of Cardinal Oddi, EWTN was given the Vatican’s blessing. 

The cardinal was also crucial in another way: helping Mother Angelica win the support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the face of obstacles. 

Arroyo recounts that, in 1981, word had reached Mother that she was being derided not by the bishops themselves but by USCCB officials. The conference had founded in the same year their own Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA), and some saw EWTN as a rival. 

According to Msgr. Hilary Franco, an official in the Congregation for Clergy at the time, the bishops “had their own local television channels in their dioceses, and neither needed nor wanted competition from other Catholics.” 

Mother Angelica again turned to the Vatican for help. “One day we got a letter from Mother Mary Angelica,” writes Msgr. Franco in his newly published memoir, Six Popes – a Son of the Church Remembers. He writes that she “pleaded with us to ask the Conference of American Catholic Bishops to support her groundbreaking ministry,” and adds that she feared if the Vatican would not “go to bat for EWTN ... she’d have to shutter it.” 

“I composed for the prefect’s signature a letter outlining why American bishops should support her ministry,” Msgr. Franco writes. The letter is not publicly available, but the Bronx-born monsignor told the Register July 15 that he remembers writing it with the “thrust that was needed on that rather difficult moment for EWTN, insisting that Mother Angelica’s apostolate could bring copious fruits in the vineyard of the Lord, not only in the States but also elsewhere in the world.” 

But although the Vatican’s help was crucial in overcoming both of these obstacles, Mother Angelica’s own personal character and faith, forged through her own personal suffering, ultimately won the day. “She had a gift to touch others that they lacked, which created all sorts of jealousies,” Arroyo told the Register July 29. “As I look at the 40-year history of EWTN, I see Mother’s tear-streaked struggles. In prayer and with great joy, she brought hope and truth to her suffering people, while behind the scenes battling to keep the network alive — both inside and outside the Church.” 

EWTN is today known as the largest religious media network in the world, with 11 global TV channels broadcasting in multiple languages 24 hours a day to more than 350 million television households in 145 countries and territories. The network also has a large radio division, and one of the largest Catholic websites in the U.S. The Register, Catholic News Agency and several global news wire portals are all services of EWTN. It also operates EWTN Publishing, its book-publishing division.

The network has always worked closely with the Vatican, carrying live broadcasts of papal events with Vatican Media. EWTN Chairman of the Board and CEO Michael Warsaw is one of 14 members of the Dicastery for Communication. 

In comments to the Register, the dicastery’s prefect, Paolo Ruffini, congratulated EWTN on its anniversary. “Forty years is a remarkable milestone,” he said, adding that, over its four decades, “EWTN has offered an inspired alternative to commercial television.” 

“In a time tempted by the illusion of being able to buy and sell everything, EWTN has tried to tell (thanks to its network) the roots of our faith, the magisterium of the popes, the mission of the Holy See and the path of the Church,” he said.

He noted that the path “hasn’t been easy” and that “we all know the temptation of the demon of division, the difficulty of being truly faithful to the Gospel message.” 

“At times we experience, even in the Church, the temptation to go it alone, forgetting that what distinguishes us is instead being members of one another,” he added, but observed that EWTN has been “a refuge for many” in an “increasingly fragmented world, in need of finding meaning in the mystery of life, death and pain.” 

Recalling Pope Francis’ words to the Catholic Press Association last year, in which he called for a media “capable of building bridges, defending life and breaking down the walls, visible and invisible, that prevent sincere dialogue and truthful communication between individuals and communities,” Ruffini said it is “important to remember what we will be recognized by.” 

“The universality of Catholicism lies in the communion of diversity under the leadership of Peter,” he said, adding that his “wish for EWTN for the years to come is that its network, too, can be an instrument of unity of the People of God, which the Lord has entrusted to Peter and his successors: united cum Petro and sub Petro.”