Father Mitch Pacwa Remembers Mother Angelica’s Early Years at EWTN

COMMENTARY: How ‘The Jesuit Cowboy’ and the ‘Media-Mogul Nun’ teamed up to teach the Catholic faith.

Mother Angelica and Father Mitch Pacwa
Mother Angelica and Father Mitch Pacwa (photo: Screenshot from <i>60 Minutes</i> episode in 1985)

I had never even considered a ministry in the media; I volunteered to defend our Catholic faith on an evangelical radio station in Nashville, Tenn., when I was a doctorate student at Vanderbilt University. Eventually, I got my own show, A Catholic View of Scripture, on that Protestant station.

One day, in 1984, Deacon Bill Steltemeier, then the president of EWTN, who was from Nashville, where I was living, liked my shows and asked Mother Angelica to invite me on her show, Mother Angelica Live. I drove to Irondale, Ala., in my $200 1968 Pontiac LeMans, wearing blue jeans, a flak jacket, hunting boots and a cowboy hat — just in case I needed to fix something in the car or change a tire. Upon arrival in the EWTN parking lot, Mother Angelica, with Sister Raphael, walked toward me and asked, “Can I help you, sir?” “Hi, Mother, I’m Father Mitch Pacwa, your guest tonight.” She hit her forehead with her palm, so I assured her, “Don’t worry; I clean up real well.”

She warned Deacon Bill that I better be good, or else he was in trouble. That providential day, Feb. 29, Mother and I had such an engaging conversation on the origin of the canon of Scripture that she bumped off the next shows and extended the program to two hours. Spontaneously, during one of the breaks, she said she wanted me to make a television series (which I filmed that May — the first of many series) on Scripture, the New Age movement and other topics.

She enjoyed my work because our goal was the same: to teach the basic Catholic faith to many listeners who had been poorly catechized since the late 1960s.

Mother was delighted to let her guests bring their own expertise to the interviews and the series. She enabled and encouraged us to use our own talents. My skills with language, form criticism and ancient history were always oriented toward greater clarity in Scripture that helped the faithful relate to the ancient texts; her approach was very homey, based in her personal understanding of basic human experience, as found in the people of the Bible.

She was happy that both approaches were broadcast to meet the needs of different audiences. For instance, she loved portraying the apostles as simple human beings who had the same faults and foibles as the people around us today. She usually called them “a bunch of dodos.” However, as she got older, and was closer to meeting the apostles in heaven, she referred to them less and less as dodos; I think even she was getting a little nervous about insulting the saints before she met them.

Another quality she taught us guests was authenticity: She was herself, whether on stage or offstage, with no public persona at all. This came home to me one night, about 15 minutes before the show, when she asked me what I wanted to talk about. I responded, “I don’t know. What do you want to talk about?” She said, “I don’t have anything. Let’s go out there and just have fun.”

Neither of us was nervous in the least, because we let each other be ourselves and talk about Jesus together.

Mother Angelica displayed a wonderful sense of humor on her shows and throughout all aspects of her life — a characteristic of the truly sane. Insane people cannot get any perspective on themselves, so they take themselves too seriously and expect everyone else to do the same. As a result, I had a great time teasing her whenever the opportunities arose.

She knew I loved and respected her, and she would give back at least as well as she got — if not better. One time, I had my mandolin with me and announced that I wanted to play the very first song I ever learned to sing as a 2-year-old and dedicate it to her. It went:

“Lay that pistol down, babe; lay that pistol down!
 Pistol-packin’ Mama, lay that pistol down.”

I came from a rough neighborhood. She expressed mock outrage as she laughed her head off.

Another time, we were reminiscing about that first appearance on Mother Angelica Live, Feb. 29, 1984. I said, “Mother, I was your Sadie Hawkins Day date that year.”

“Well, Sweetheart, you must have been pretty hard up for a date!” she replied.

“Just remember, Mother, you were the one who asked me,” I said. “It was Sadie Hawkins Day, after all.” We enjoyed the repartee.

In 1992, the Israeli government asked me to make videos in the Holy Land at their expense. I could not convince her to get over her fear of endangering the camera crew and the equipment because of the uncertainty in that region. In my frustration, I pulled a Mother Angelica “trick.” I went right into the chapel and asked Jesus, “Lord, how can I get Mother Angelica to agree to send us to Israel?”

A few minutes later, I walked out of the chapel, ran into Mother and asked, “Mother, what if we recorded [while] praying the Rosary at each of the places in the Holy Land where the mysteries actually occurred?” In 15 seconds, she said, “That’s a good idea. Let’s do it, Sweetheart.”

You see, she had deepened in us the need to go to Jesus for everything, even when it came to changing Mother’s mind.

When I went to Irondale to edit the Holy Land Rosary in March 1993, one of the worst snowstorms to hit Birmingham dumped 18 inches of snow and shut down the city. Because I had my cowboy boots, I could lend a hand at the station as needed. After rescuing Deacon Bill and an EWTN board member who had gotten stuck in the snow, I then walked through the convent to go to their back storage area and bring up some space heaters. I took note of Mother’s cell, which was just as small and simple as were the cells of the other sisters. That was not how most media moguls lived.

During the aftermath of the storm, a number of us huddled in the guest kitchen, since the houses were freezing cold without any electricity. Mother came in and told stories, spoke about Jesus and laughed with all of us.

During the 14 years Mother was bedridden after her strokes, many of her opponents openly predicted that EWTN would fold because she was gone. She was not gone at all, but had simply moved to full-time prayer, and they had not reckoned on the power of Mother’s prayers.

The network grew faster than ever: from 60 million homes to 264 million; radio affiliates increased from 30 to more than 500. Mother had begun the English and Spanish channels, and the network then added a German channel and a part-time French channel, in addition to local groups translating our content into Polish, Ukrainian, Korean and other languages.

If her intercession was powerful while she was bedridden in a convent, I can barely imagine the good she will do in heaven. Thank you, Mother, for everything, and speak of us often when you talk to Jesus and Mary.

Let us all pray she gets there soon.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is an author and speaker

and the host of EWTN Live and Threshold of Hope.

Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Joseph Cordileone attends the mass and imposition of the Pallium upon the new metropolitan archbishops held by Pope Francis for the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

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A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has a profound understanding of what the U.S. bishops have called the preeminent issue of our time, and his stand is courageous.