Getting to Know Mother Angelica

EWTN’s CEO wasn’t initially drawn to the network because of its legendary founder, but his respect for her has grown over the years.

After flying to the U.K. to prepare for Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit in September, then heading to Canton, Ohio, for EWTN’s Family Celebration in October, Michael Warsaw has not slowed down.

The president and chief executive officer of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) flew to Boston in early November to celebrate the launch of the city’s new Catholic radio station, WQOM 1060 AM. He is now back in Birmingham, Ala., and is, among other things, assisting more people interested in starting radio stations, and working on strategic initiatives in Europe and Asia.

Warsaw is fully committed to EWTN today, but initially had no plans of working there after meeting with the network’s founder, Mother Angelica, on a business trip in 1987. It was not until 1990 that he seriously considered working at what is now the world‘s largest religious media network, and in the following year his career at EWTN began. In 2000 Mother Angelica offered him the position of president, and in 2009 he succeeded Deacon Bill Steltemeier as CEO.

Prior to working at EWTN, Warsaw established the Department of Communications at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He is a native of Springfield, Mass., and currently resides in Birmingham with his wife, Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw, along with their son Michael Jr. and daughter Angelica.
Michael Warsaw recently spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.

How did a young man from Massachusetts end up in Alabama as the CEO of the world’s largest religious media network?

I grew up in a family that emphasized service to the Church, so from my earliest memories as a child, I can recall being involved in activities at our parish. As I grew up, that desire to serve the Church never left me. While I was attending The Catholic University of America, I joined the staff of the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. I was asked by Cardinal James Hickey and the shrine’s rector, then-Msgr. (now Bishop) Michael Bransfield, to establish a communications department for the basilica.

In 1987, I had the opportunity to travel to Irondale and to meet with Mother Angelica to discuss a proposal for EWTN to televise Masses from the basilica. I can recall sitting in Mother’s office at the network and discussing the proposal with her.

We went ahead with the project and that gave me the opportunity to work closely with the network’s staff and to travel frequently to Irondale. In doing so, I came to be more and more convinced of the importance of the network’s mission and the potential it had to communicate the faith to huge numbers of people.

In 1990, I had the occasion to host Mother Angelica for a visit to Washington, D.C., and as she was getting in the car to leave for the airport, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Sweetheart, I think you need to come and work for me in Alabama.”

With her characteristic laugh, she disappeared into the car and drove off. A few months later, I was in Irondale as the network’s director of promotions and shortly after that became executive producer.

In the years that followed, I had the opportunity to work with Mother on a daily basis, and she entrusted me with implementing many of her expansion plans for the network and its services. In 2000, when she stepped down from her administrative role with the network, she asked me to take on the post of president. In 2009, our board of governors appointed me to succeed Deacon Bill Steltemeier as the network’s chief executive officer.

I often think of that first meeting with Mother Angelica back in 1987 and the fact that I never would have dreamed that two decades later I would be sitting in that same office on the other side of that desk. It’s a great reminder to me that we never know what plans God has in store for us or what work he is going to call us to do for him; but we always have to be open to the Holy Spirit and be willing to say Yes to God’s call.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen since you started working at EWTN?

When I first came to work at EWTN in 1991, the network consisted of the one U.S. TV channel only; radio had not yet begun, and, of course, there were no websites or digital media at that time. There were no more than 50 employees total, and most were local to Alabama.

Today, we have about 325 employees in the U.S. and 25 regional offices around the world in places like Rome, Madrid, London, Buenos Aires, Manila and in Cameroon.

EWTN now operates 10 separate television channels in multiple languages around the globe; we transmit multiple radio feeds that are heard in hundreds of millions of homes here in the U.S. and internationally, and we have a website that attracts tens of millions of visitors each year. You can find EWTN content on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and across the Internet.

So, I would say that one of the biggest changes really has been the scope of what EWTN does and the reach that we have around the world. And while the size, scope and reach of EWTN has changed dramatically, our mission remains unchanged from the first day.

What are the big stories you took away from Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Kingdom in September?

I think Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.K. in September will probably come to be seen as one of the most important moments in his papacy.

With so much anti-Catholic rhetoric and vitriol leading up to the trip, I certainly shared the universal concern and apprehension about how the Holy Father’s visit would come together. In the end, in the typical style of Pope Benedict, logic and language prevailed. I think it was a brilliant visit that reminded the people of Britain of their Catholic heritage and presented a strong but simple call to resist the pressures of secularism and relativism that have taken hold of their society, and to come home.

In that respect, I think the Holy Father’s message was not just to the people of the U.K., but really universal.

Was EWTN already popular with British Catholics, or did you see a surge in popularity with the Pope’s visit?

EWTN has had a huge following in Britain for many years now, since our launch there in 1998, but the Holy Father’s visit and our coverage of it raised greater awareness of the network’s television and radio services there. Part of the feedback we received was that people appreciated our style and approach to the coverage of the visit compared with the secular media outlets.

By putting the visit squarely in a Catholic context, and by allowing the Holy Father to be heard without filters or editing, people were able to get a much better sense of the visit and his message.

That’s not an uncommon reaction to EWTN’s coverage of papal events, not just the visit to Britain. What we offer is complete coverage in a Catholic context. No other media outlet in the world does that as well as we can.

Have you lost viewers to the likes of CatholicTV and various independent podcasters?

Quite the contrary; all of EWTN’s services continue to grow exponentially both here in the U.S. and around the world. Our own podcasts and on-demand services, along with our other Web- and social media-based services have gained huge followings.
Our secular media colleagues would say that in an increasingly cluttered digital age, “brand” means everything. When there is so much content available, people tend to stay with the name or the “brand” that they know.

For nearly 30 years now, EWTN has proven that it is a strong and solid source for Catholic programming content, and as a result has become the largest Catholic television and media organization in the world. We don’t see that changing because people can access other content.

Sometimes I am asked by secular journalists about the “competition” between EWTN and other religious media outlets. I am always very quick to point out that you can’t frame the discussion in secular business terms. All of us involved in religious media share the common goal of leading souls to salvation.

For Catholic media, in particular, our goal is to point people back to their parish church, back to Mass, back to participating fully in the sacramental life of the Church. If there are multiple sources of sound Catholic content that are accomplishing that common goal, then that’s a blessing for the Church.

What were your impressions of EWTN’s latest Family Celebration in Canton, Ohio — the hometown of Mother Angelica?

The Family Celebration in Canton was tremendous. We had well over 3,000 people attend, largely from the Canton, Ohio, area, but also from as far away as California and even Ireland. Each one of these events is an opportunity for people to come together and celebrate their faith.

We all walk away at the end of the weekend feeling recharged.
I think having the event in Mother’s hometown also added a unique spirit to the celebration. It was quite obvious that there is a great deal of pride among the people of the city of Canton in being the birthplace of Mother Angelica and the place where her religious vocation was nurtured.

Raymond Arroyo made an excellent point in his talk at the event: He suggested that to understand Mother Angelica you have to go back to her beginnings in Canton. If you understand the difficult environment in which she was formed, then you can better understand what gave her the incredible courage to take on the work that she did.

When and where is the next Family Celebration?

The next EWTN Family Celebration will be held in Birmingham, Ala., on the weekend of July 23 and 24, 2011. I hope people will mark their calendars and plan on attending.

You obviously have a high regard for Mother Angelica, even naming your daughter Angelica. What do you think of Mother’s contribution to Catholic communications?

Indeed, I do have the highest regard for Mother Angelica. Unlike some people who came to work for EWTN through the years, I wasn’t initially drawn to EWTN because of Mother. It was the mission of EWTN that really first attracted me.

My personal relationship with Mother developed after I had been involved with EWTN for some time. I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with her nearly every day for many years. We had the opportunity to talk about many things, from the important to the silly.

I think that when all is said and done, history will view Mother Angelica as the person who showed the Church how to use the media to evangelize and to reach people in a profound way, wherever they are in life. I think history will look back and show that where the institutional Church often failed to make effective use of the mass media, this cloistered Franciscan nun in the buckle of the Bible Belt succeeded.

I was recently asked what quote of Mother’s I thought is most emblematic of her work. Mother often reminded us, “Unless we are willing to do the ridiculous, then God cannot do the miraculous.” I think that pretty well sums up her contribution to Catholic communications. She did things that were ridiculous in the eyes of the world, but God continues to use those efforts to accomplish miracles.

How is Mother Angelica doing today?

Mother Angelica is resting comfortably at her monastery in Hanceville, Ala., surrounded by her sisters. She is now 87 years old, and although her 2001 stroke left her with little ability to speak, she is alert and remains in great spirits.

I saw her several weeks ago, and she looks wonderful. She continues to offer her sufferings and her prayers for EWTN, its mission and for her EWTN family around the world. I think she is doing her most important work for EWTN now.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.