How Mother Angelica Became the Fulton Sheen of Our Generation

U.S. Catholic leaders and media professionals discuss EWTN’s transformative impact on contemporary America’s Catholic broadcasting landscape.

Mother Angelica briefs Pope John Paul II about aspects of EWTN's operations.
Mother Angelica briefs Pope John Paul II about aspects of EWTN's operations. (photo: ewtn.com)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Thirty-five years after she founded the Eternal Word Television Network, Mother Angelica has left a lasting impression on the Catholic media landscape, changing the way in which the Catholic Church uses media to convey the Gospel.

“Mother Angelica gave impetus for us not to be afraid to see the media as our friend,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Archbishop Kurtz told the Register that Mother Angelica was a pioneer who inspired many Catholics to use all forms of media — television, radio, newspapers and the Internet — to evangelize the culture.

Said the archbishop, “In many ways — dioceses, and I count myself among them — we’re encouraged to have our own television conversations and other media opportunities precisely because of the way that Mother Angelica was received by others.”

Mother Angelica, who died at 92 on Easter Sunday, started EWTN in the garage of the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale, Ala., in 1981. That modest beginning developed into an influential global TV, radio, online and print operation. Today, EWTN broadcasts to more than 264 million households around the world.

“There is no natural or normal explanation about how she accomplished all that she did,” said Jim Coyle, a communications arts professor emeritus at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

“She started very simply, with very traditional media, and embraced each new medium to try to reach people globally, step by step, and it has just been an amazing revolution, I think, in Catholic media communications,” said Coyle, who was the first director of the Franciscan University Presents show on EWTN.

Coyle said that at the time Mother Angelica launched EWTN as a part-time evening operation in the early 1980s, dioceses in the United States were relying on local diocesan newspapers, print media and Catholic magazines to disseminate information.

“There really wasn’t a nationwide or national presence for the Catholic Church like there had been in 1950s or radio before that,” Coyle said, adding that in the early 1980s there were dozens of religious groups across the country that were producing radio programming at the local level.

And while local and nationally produced Catholic programs and series were sometimes produced and syndicated to individual stations, such broadcasts often only occurred during early morning or late-night hours.

Noted Coyle, “There wasn’t a unified national presence.”

 

Cable TV Was Key

Starting small, and gradually expanding through contacts with local people and petitioning cable systems that at the time typically had a few dozen channels at most, EWTN would establish that previously-absent unified presence.

“She just gradually increased the reach of EWTN to establish a nationwide exposure to Catholic teaching via the cable systems,” Coyle said of Mother Angelica, adding that the U.S. bishops’ conference in the 1980s established committees that were unsuccessful in launching their own national cable network.

“Over time, EWTN grew, from four hours a night to six hours a night, and then in 1987 — Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to the United States, in the Sun Belt and Detroit — was when EWTN went to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That established a very strong presence. And over the years, they moved into shortwave broadcasting and so on.”

Catholic commentator Russell Shaw, who served as the U.S. bishops’ communications director in the 1970s and 1980s, said that the development of U.S. cable television opened the door to evangelizing large masses of Americans with Catholic truths, in a way that wasn’t possible previously.

Until the 1960s, Shaw noted, there was “a much friendlier environment for the Catholic Church,” in terms of TV coverage than existed afterward. This was partly because of a diminished cultural respect for religion, but also because of deregulation of TV that dispensed with the “public service” requirement that mandated local stations provide free time to churches and other groups as a condition for retaining their broadcasting licenses.

“By way of compensation, religious broadcasters (e.g., Pat Robertson) turned to the relatively new world of cable TV, which had opened up a vastly expanded number of new channels,” Shaw said. “Mother Angelica evidently learned from the example of the televangelists and sought to do something similar for a Catholic audience. The rest, as they say, is history.”

EWTN’s early growth was so startling that, in October 1985, 60 Minutes featured Mother Angelica in a segment hosted by Morley Safer, who noted that after only four years of existence, EWTN’s broadcasts were already airing in nine million homes in 37 states.

“Cloistered nuns in television is without question one of the most ridiculous things that could have ever happened,” Mother Angelica told Safer with a grin. “It just evolved.”

When the 60 Minutes host pressed for more details about exactly how it did happen, Mother Angelica elaborated that she was inspired by a 1978 visit to a small Chicago TV studio.

“I walked into that tiny, tiny studio — I’d never seen a TV studio before,” she recounted. “We had already been publicizing books for a couple of years, reaching a lot of people. But I remember standing in the doorway and saying, ‘It doesn’t take much to reach the masses.’

“And I said, ‘Lord, I gotta have one of these.’”

 

Following Fulton’s Footsteps

Many have compared Mother Angelica to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who hosted the popular Life Is Worth Living show on network television during the 1950s.

“Both she and Archbishop Sheen were giants in the media,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “They lived in different ages. Hers was much more of a talk-show interactive model, where Archbishop Sheen used more of a classroom-teaching model. Both were engaging personalities, and they each got people to turn their television sets to their stations.”

Like Archbishop Sheen, Mother Angelica understood that the Church has to “open her doors and let Jesus out,” as Pope Francis has said, said Elise Italiano, the executive director of university communications for The Catholic University of America.

“By using television, and later multiple media platforms, she put the face of the Church out into the public, which served to bring many people back to the sacraments and to communities of faith,” said Italiano, who told the Register that she has “many memories” of watching Mother Angelica in her grandmother’s living room.

Said Italiano, “She taught me countless lessons about the Catholic faith, but also how to share it.”

According to Shaw, “Mother Angelica’s achievement was remarkable in at least two ways. The first, obviously, was creating and building EWTN itself. Her success in doing this against all odds was, in my mind, clearly providential.

“But her other achievement was perhaps even greater. In creating and building EWTN, she was putting in place an important piece of the infrastructure of the new Catholic subculture so urgently needed in American Catholicism today.”

Added Shaw, “Mother Angelica stands as one of the two giants of American Catholic communications to date. The other of course is Archbishop Fulton Sheen. I take my hat off to them both.”

 

Bishop Barron

Mother Angelica’s example inspired many Catholic media professionals to ply their trade on behalf of the Church and the Gospel.

Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, which uses new media to draw people into or back to the Catholic faith, told the Register in an email that Mother Angelica’s most direct influence on him was her “spirituality of radical trust in divine Providence.” Bishop Barron said Mother Angelica was confident that if God asked her to do something, he would provide what was needed for that work.

“When we started Word on Fire, with very little money and institutional support, we relied on God — and he came through,” Bishop Barron said. “When we commenced the Catholicism series, we had to beg for the money. And when the series was finished, we trusted that God would find an outlet for it.” EWTN was among the channels that aired it.

Said Bishop Barron, “I was also influenced by her chutzpah and sheer gumption. She saw what needed to be done, and she did it. She didn’t wring her hands or bemoan her fate or blame others. She did the needed thing. That influenced me very directly.”

Chicago-based Catholic journalist Sheila Liaugminas, whose credentials in secular media include two decades of reporting for Time magazine and co-hosting an Emmy Award-winning program on Chicago’s NBC affiliate, credits Mother Angelica’s example with shaping her own commitment to bring her faith into the media marketplace.

“Mother’s truly authentic and personal way of speaking about faith and life in all her broadcasts, sharing the ‘Good News’ of truth and beauty and God so utterly calmly and convincingly, always herself and open to wherever the moment led her broadcast, helped form my work as a woman broadcaster talking about news and issues of the day through the lens of faith and teachings of the Church,” Liaugminas told the Register.

“The witness of women of faith in engaging the culture, society and the universal Church is especially important now, with such focus on the Catholic Church, the meaning of family and the role of women. Mother always served as a model disciple, teacher, witness and woman of God.”

Franciscan University theology professor Scott Hahn, another prominent Catholic communicator, attributes “the “amazing fruit” of Mother Angelica’s media apostolate to her “deep prayer and Eucharistic adoration.”

“Having been on her program many times and spent time with her in prayer, I felt a real bond of friendship with her, and she was like an older sister,” Hahn said. “She was a beloved daughter of God and a spiritual mother to millions. In fact, she proved to be the spiritual matriarch of the New Evangelization.”

 

Millennial Impact

Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow with The Catholic Association, a nonprofit that presents Catholic teachings in the public square, told the Register that one of Mother Angelica’s biggest impacts was making the Catholic faith accessible and inviting to people who consume most of their information through television.

“I think she saw, before most people really did, the power that media has in influencing people’s lives and shaping opinions,” McGuire said. “And she realized that the Catholic Church could really insert itself in a positive way for the good, but she also did it in a down-to-earth way.”

McGuire also said that Mother Angelica’s example helps to embolden contemporary Catholics who work in media apostolates to have courage to speak the truth in a popular culture that is in many ways at odds with Catholic moral teachings.

“You have to realize that what you’re saying often cuts completely against the cultural grain. You have to embrace and accept it,” McGuire said. “But she did it in a very charitable way. She was both warmhearted and witty at the same time. I think for Catholic media professionals and journalists, that’s something to emulate.”

Christopher White, associate director of Catholic Voices USA, a nonprofit organization that also presents a Catholic perspective in public affairs, told the Register that Catholic media professionals today have “big shoes to fill.”

“Any young Catholic working in Church media today is indebted to the work of Mother Angelica and all she did to pave a presence for us,” White said. “I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I’ll forever be grateful as a beneficiary of her tireless efforts.”

Addie Mena, the Washington correspondent for Catholic News Agency, agreed, telling the Register that Catholic media would likely not exist as the entity it is today without Mother Angelica’s efforts.

“She defined what Catholic media is and the impact it has in the Church and its ability to speak to the outside world,” said Mena, adding that many people across the world have told her of their love for Mother Angelica when they learn that she works for an EWTN-affiliated entity.

“It’s incredible, especially when you look at the impact her work has had just in the American Church. It’s astounding,” Mena said. “When you look at the place that Catholic media has in Latin America, Africa and East Asia, it’s really incredible.”

 

‘She Wanted to Go on the March’

Bishop Barron said that Mother Angelica, very much in tune with Pope St. John Paul II, gave Catholicism in the United States an evangelical focus.

“She was not satisfied with the maintenance of institutions. She wanted to go on the march, bringing the Catholic faith to the wider culture,” said Bishop Barron, who explained that, after the Second Vatican Council, the Church — in direct opposition to the Council’s authentic spirit — tended to turn inward, debating with itself over issues of sex and authority.

“But in reality, the whole élan of the Council was missionary and extraverted. Mother embodied that attitude,” said Bishop Barron, also adding that Mother Angelica showed that committees and bureaucracies rarely accomplish anything great.

“What you need is a person on fire with the Gospel and with a clear vision,” Bishop Barron said. “The rest will follow.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.

Register staff contributed to this report.

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