EWTN Made the Mass Accessible to Millions

Reverent, Pious Liturgy Important Evangelizing Tool

IRONDALE, Ala. — When Father Roger Landry brings the Eucharist to homebound Catholics, the Fall River, Mass., priest often finds them watching EWTN’s broadcast of the Mass.

“EWTN makes daily Mass accessible to millions of Catholics, especially homebound people,” said Father Landry, who has appeared on the television network.

Although her skirmishes with Church officials over how the Mass was celebrated — ad orientem (facing east) instead of versus populum (facing the people) — were highly publicized in some Catholic circles, those were only “a small part of the picture,” according to Father Landry.

“The big picture is that she made it possible for so many people to participate spiritually in daily Mass,” he said.

Further, as U.S. Catholics take stock of Mother Angelica’s wide-ranging influence on the life of the Church, they point to EWTN’s broadcast of a reverent, “by-the-book” liturgy as a critical element of her mission.

“She modeled the way the Mass should be celebrated, according to the Roman rite,” Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., told the Register.

That contribution, Bishop Conley suggested, had an impact in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, when some dioceses and pastors falsely believed the Council had introduced a period of liturgical innovation that roiled the faithful.

“The Council took place at a time of rebellion against tradition in the larger culture, and there was tremendous pressure to adapt the liturgy,” Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press and an early adviser of Mother Angelica, told the Register.

“When Mother Angelica came on the scene, it was a time of confusion and compromise. In many parishes and dioceses, the liturgy was watered down.”

“She was able to reach ordinary faithful Catholics by making an end run around those who had a different view of the liturgy,” said Father Fessio, who co-founded Adoremus, the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy.

Franciscan Missionary of the Eternal Word Father Joseph Mary Wolfe, EWTN’s chaplain and administrator of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, was on the ground floor when Mother Angelica decided to begin televising the Mass.

“In 1991, during the first Gulf War, Mother Angelica wanted to do something positive and started to televise the Mass,” Father Joseph told the Register, in an interview after the April 1 funeral for EWTN’s foundress.

“The people loved the televised Mass,” he said.

While some viewers were too frail to leave their homes, others “couldn’t get to daily Mass because of their work — but at least they could tune in and hear the readings.”

A trained engineer, Father Joseph began working for EWTN in 1985 and would later be among the founding members of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. The second Mass he celebrated as a priest was broadcast on EWTN, and Father Joseph still remembers the “sleepless nights” that preceded the broadcast, as he fine-tuned his homily. But he slowly gained confidence. And he soon learned to celebrate the Mass with elements of Gregorian chant.

The inclusion of Latin marked the EWTN team’s growing appreciation for the rich “treasure” of sacred music and other liturgical traditions, as they studied documents issued by Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council and Pope Benedict XVI, the author of The Spirit of the Liturgy and the 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis.

“Dominican Father Brian Mullady taught us the most popular Gregorian chant,” remembered Father Joseph.

Once the sisters adopted Gregorian chant, he said, EWTN learned that “parishes had begun to sing the Agnus Dei and Kyrie.” And as EWTN expanded beyond U.S. borders, the network saw the value of adopting Latin at Masses watched by Catholics who did not speak English. But the power and popularity of EWTN’s televised Mass centered on the celebrant’s joyful reverence for the Eucharist and embrace of the rubrics as a way to faithfully express their love for God.

During the 1990s, when Mother Angelica fielded questions on her weekly live talk show, Catholics often called in to complain about irreverent liturgies. And their distress, said Father Joseph, inspired members of his order to offer a “sacred, beautiful and faithful Mass that followed the rubrics.”

But some Church leaders questioned some of EWTN’s liturgical practices, especially the celebration of the Mass ad orientem.

Father Joseph said he had embraced the decision to face the east, “with the people toward God. It brings across the [teaching of] the priest as mediator. He is bringing the prayers of the people to God and the blessings and grace of God to the people,” he explained.

He noted that Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, consecrated in 1999, had been designed to face the east, with the expectation that the Mass would be celebrated with the priest facing the altar, unifying the priest and the people as they engage with the Holy Sacrifice.

But Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Ala., saw things differently and directed the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word to celebrate the Mass facing the people, as was the general practice in his diocese.

As Raymond Arroyo recounts in his biography of Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles, she refused to comply, and the bishop issued a decree in October 1999 that barred priests in the diocese from adopting the ad orientem option and described it as a “political statement … dividing the people.”

Mother Angelica dispatched an aide to Rome, and within a month, a fax from the Vatican to Bishop Foley overturned his decree.

But after further negotiations, the bishop issued a second directive that effectively prohibited the televised celebration of the Mass ad orientem in his diocese. On March 12, 2000, EWTN discontinued broadcasts of the sisters’ Mass at the Hanceville monastery and shifted broadcasts of the Mass to its TV headquarters 45 minutes away in Irondale.

The two resolved the issue not long afterward, and Bishop Foley concelebrated Mother Angelica’s funeral Mass on April 1.

EWTN’s regularly televised Mass has not been celebrated ad orientem for 16 years. But the network’s commitment to providing a faithful, reverent Mass that features elements of Gregorian chant continues to this day.

“EWTN’s broadcast of the Mass has modeled for the nation Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s vision of authentic liturgical renewal based on the continuity of Tradition,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register.

“In Pope Benedict’s vision of the hermeneutic of continuity, we read the Second Vatican Council in the light of the Tradition that has come before,” said Archbishop Cordileone, who noted that the televised Masses seamlessly transmit this papal teaching to ordinary Catholics. “The more we can incorporate beauty into the liturgy, the more people will desire it and desire holiness.”

Indeed, Father Joseph has witnessed firsthand the unexpected power of a televised Mass, and so the liturgical skirmishes of the past no longer trouble him. Among his papers is a letter he received from a British man who had been an atheist — until he saw the Mass on EWTN.

“The man was watching television and came across me celebrating the Mass,” he said. “He wrote that he began to watch me, and now he is a seminarian for the Jesuits in England. I kept that letter.”

 

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