Mother Angelica Started an 'Evangelical Revolution,' Reaching Millions of Souls
EWTN has grown in 35 years from 60,000 U.S. homes to 260 million homes worldwide, including, most recently Indonesia -- the world's most populous Islamic nation.
ROME — EWTN’s exponential global expansion has been one of the most remarkable feats since Mother Angelica flicked the transmitter switch in a converted garage in Birmingham, Ala., back in 1981.
From an audience of 60,000 at the start, the network now reaches more than 260 million homes worldwide, including, most recently, Indonesia — the world’s most populous Islamic nation. Millions more have access to EWTN programs on the Internet.
This year, in fact, marks the 20th anniversary since EWTN significantly ventured beyond U.S. borders, launching in 1996 alone a global AM/FM radio service and extending the network across Europe, Asia and Oceania.
But as Mother Angelica used to say: What’s important “isn’t what we’ve done, it’s how we’ve done it.” For her, the network was there to serve the Lord, and all credit should go to him and his providence. Beyond the figures, therefore, lies a more interesting factor: the lives God has touched through EWTN and the millions of people the service has brought to Christ, transcending cultures, religions and denominations.
Even before Mother Angelica’s passing on Easter Sunday, EWTN would regularly receive testimonies from people from all over the world, explaining how the network’s programs had changed their lives for the better, led to their conversions and strengthened their faith.
“I have good evidence of how the channel has helped millions of Africans,” Bishop Emmanuel Badejo, chairman of communications for the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, told the Register March 30. He said he has received letters from families in remote areas where “one would not have imagined they would access the service,” and yet they “conduct much of their family prayer with EWTN.”
Bishop Badejo, who leads Nigeria’s Oyo Diocese, said the channel “is reaching such huge numbers” in Africa that he went so far as to describe it as “an evangelical revolution, from the Catholic point of view.” EWTN, he said, has “greatly helped to project the pro-life, pro-family culture and worldview of the African peoples as a valid and tested alternative to modern contraceptive culture and anti-family tendencies and movements.”
India and Latin America
In India, too, the network has had a considerable impact. Bishop Henry D’Souza, chairman of the Office for Youth of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told the Register March 31 that Mother Angelica had almost become “a household name” in the country.
EWTN television has been especially important for the elderly and the sick, he said, bringing liturgical celebrations and opening “the treasures of the word of God to their living rooms and bedrooms.”
“A great deal of people in India are watching this channel, and mostly people appreciate it because it’s a Catholic channel, where so many other channels are available,” Bishop D’Souza said. “It has been of great, immense use, I would say.”
He added that he was “aware of people who have come to the Lord and experienced the power of the Holy Spirit through EWTN.” They may not yet join the Catholic Church, he said, but it “definitely makes them more open” to doing so, because it helps them to “experience the power of the word of God” and the “acting of the Holy Spirit through these programs.”
At a time when Pope Francis is emphasizing the need to “go to the peripheries,” EWTN has been making great inroads into the farthest-flung countries of the world where Christians are a minority. In August 2015, the network started broadcasting in Indonesia through both the country’s largest cable TV network and one of Indonesia’s largest direct-to-home satellite service providers.
EWTN’s growth has been especially strong in Latin America. As of the end of 2015, the network had well over 2,000 television affiliates in Latin America and Spain, reaching nearly 34 million subscribers and a potential audience of approximately 135 million people. The network’s radio outreach has also been strong, with 102 radio affiliates in Latin America, reaching approximately 23 million listeners.
Although satellite and cable broadcasts to mainland China are not possible, online technology has opened up evangelization opportunities there as well. “While the government has warned that it has employed more than 100,000 Internet police, the faithful, particularly those underground, can now access EWTN better than before,” said Edwin Lopez, EWTN’s Asia-Pacific regional manager.
The network also penetrated Communist Vietnam via the Internet last year, where some of its English programs are now translated in the Vietnamese language. Vietnam “is our doorstep to mainland China,” Lopez said, and he is certain that Taiwan, where similar translations of episodes are taking place, is also enabling EWTN to reach out to mainland China via the Internet and social media.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, told the Register April 1 he was grateful to EWTN for hosting him for a long interview, so he could “share with a large audience my worries about the Church in China and ask for their prayers.” He noted it was a “wonderful coincidence” Mother Angelica was “called to heaven on Easter Sunday.”
The network is also particularly popular in the Philippines. Cardinal Antonio Tagle of Manila issued a video message of condolence on the news of Mother Angelica’s passing, in which he expressed gratitude for her life on behalf of the people of the Philippines.
Cardinal George Pell, then the archbishop of Melbourne, was instrumental in bringing EWTN to Australia in 1996. The network has since offered much needed balance, said Bishop Gerard Hanna of Wagga Wagga. Speaking in February of this year, he said that equilibrium is especially welcome in a country where the Catholic Church “doesn’t get much coverage at all, and usually, when it does, it’s in a negative way.” It allows viewers to see the Church’s “good, wholesome and beneficial” contribution to broader society, he said.
It’s not easy to gauge how many watch EWTN in the Middle East, but the number is potentially very large because of the many Christian households that have satellite TV and so can receive EWTN off of the Hotbird satellite, according to Ian Murray, EWTN’s regional manager for Europe and the Middle East.
Elisabetta Valgiusti, who has produced documentaries on Christians in Iraq, Turkey and Syria that have been transmitted on EWTN, told the Register that working for EWTN has brought her valuable access to religious leaders in the region, who have all heard of the network.
More importantly, they and the Catholic faithful generally are grateful for the attention. “Usually, other networks cover the region only when there’s a tragedy,” she said. “But the Eastern Churches want to feel connected to Western Christians, and EWTN has helped in this way,” she said.
Over in Europe, despite — or perhaps because of — a deep crisis of faith in Germany, EWTN is making considerable inroads. The channel now reaches more than 20 million homes in German-speaking countries, and requests for program guides are “constantly growing,” said Martin Rothweiler, bureau chief of EWTN Germany. “People are grateful to hear things about the faith and the Catholic Church they have not heard for decades,” he said.
A growing elderly and often immobile population unable to attend Mass also appreciates the programs, he said, and added that EWTN’s coverage of the recent synod on the family was particularly well received. “Parents and teachers tell us that, with our kids’ programs, we help them to convey the faith to the young ones. And there are also conversion stories,” Rothweiler said.
Generally, EWTN’s cable television broadcasts have had limited penetration into other Western European nations, but Murray said he has received requests for program updates from France, the Netherlands, Belgium and very strongly from Scandinavia. With the conversion of the founder of Sweden’s largest evangelical church and the growth of Catholic migrant workers in Scandinavia, the Catholic Church in the region “is seeing the seeds of revitalization blooming,” Murray said.
In common with the rest of Western Europe, the United Kingdom has experienced “a large decline in Mass attendance and also a large decline in spirituality of those still attending Mass,” said Andy Pollock, managing director of St. Clare Media, EWTN’s charity in Britain.
“In most countries, including Great Britain, we struggle to reach 5% of the Mass attenders,” he said, but the “Internet and smartphones are opening new channels for us.” Also despite these challenges, EWTN is expanding there: Thanks to a generous legacy, it recently purchased a house in Little Walsingham that should enable local productions.
EWTN’s main success on the continent, however, has been in Central and Eastern Europe. Murray said that, over the past four years, the network has been expanding in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia and Poland. EWTN Ukraine now reaches 58 cities via cable and Internet television (IPTV). Mother Angelica also inspired the creation of Laudato television in Croatia, which broadcast her funeral Mass live.
But it’s the stories of how EWTN has had an impact on the lives of people around the world that stand out, whether they be conversion stories or those in which viewers have found great solace in the channel.
One conversion story Rothweiler said he will never forget involved a phone call from a viewer who had had many bad experiences when he was young and always felt pressured to meet the unrealistic expectations of his parents. It had brought him close to going to prison, but one day, while flipping channels on his satellite dish, he heard a priest on EWTN telling young people: “It’s not important what we accomplish in life but that God loves each one of us.”
“Just that little statement, at that particular moment, struck him and made him call our office with the intention of returning home to the Church now and wanting to get in touch with a priest,” said Rothweiler.
Another memorable EWTN conversion story — one also connected with EWTN Germany — comes from German native and former Hollywood filmmaker Christian Peschken. While watching television when living in Pacific Palisades, Calif., in 2007, Peschken, then an evangelical, came across The Journey Home program. The guest on that particular show referred to the Catholic Church as the true Church that Jesus himself, through Peter as the first pope, established.
“That was not only new to my ears, but threw me into a faith crisis,” Peschken recalled. He and his Mormon wife, Patricia, then kept watching EWTN and learned more about the Catholic faith. “It was not long thereafter that my wife and I realized that if we were to take our faith seriously and truly believe Jesus, we had to become Catholics.”
He began producing programs for EWTN, his wife was baptized, and they were both received into the Church in 2011. Nowadays, Peschken runs the Pax Press Agency in Geneva and produces programs broadcast on EWTN. Both he and Patricia were confirmed at the Easter vigil this year, the same Easter that Mother Angelica passed away. “If it weren’t for her, and EWTN, we would not be Catholics and probably not even be in Geneva serving the Catholic Church through the media,” Christian Peschken said.
Another powerful example of the global impact of EWTN took place in Colombia in 1999. Benjamin Herrera, an attorney, was kidnapped by guerillas in 1997 and held captive for 18 months. During the last six months of his capture, having been deprived of personal contact and communication, he had access to a shortwave radio belonging to a fellow captive and began listening to EWTN. He could listen to the live daily Mass and was inspired by many other programs that helped him on a journey of deep conversion. “EWTN Radio deserves, from the bottom of my heart, my praise,” he told the EWTN program Nuestra Fe en Vivo, hosted by Pepe Alonso.
A priest, Father Francisco Arias, traveled to the mountains where Herrera was captured, having negotiated the lawyer’s release. Father Arias said Herrera fell on his knees upon seeing the priest and asked him to confess his sins right on the spot. After listening to EWTN, his only concern was to confess and be liberated from sin, as he wanted to be at peace with the Lord before resuming his life as a free man, Father Arias recalled.
In comments on Facebook in reaction to Mother Angelica’s death, viewers have been sharing how EWTN and Mother have affected their lives. “I am not Catholic nor very religious, but whenever I could find her on TV, I loved to watch her,” said Donna Stephens. “She was very inspirational, truthful and had a way of ‘reaching me’! God bless her!”
“This saint was my inspiration to learn the Rosary; and in three months, I followed my heart and became Catholic,” said Randy Fisher. “Now I am discerning seminary. I owe it all to her ministry. I wish I could have met her. She was the inspiration.”
“Mother Angelica, you are loved and greatly appreciated in Africa, where we get you loud and clear,” wrote Elizabeth Watkins. “Even though your mortal body has left us, your spirit remains, and I know in heaven you now have a higher calling for us. Pray for us as we continue praying for you. May the Lord grant you eternal rest. Amen.”
Many have also testified to how EWTN helped lead them to the priesthood or religious life. Father Michael Kane from Scotland said EWTN was often on television as he was growing up, and his parents used to regularly watch it, “encouraged by the spiritual nourishment the channel gave.”
“I’m sure underneath the surface that was doing something, even with me as a young man,” he said. “It was creating an environment in the home to learn and to learn a love for our faith.”
‘Great Media Genius’
In his comments to the Register, Bishop Badejo said Mother Angelica and the network she founded have been a “great support for the evangelization of our people,” and it was “all to the credit of the great media genius and evangelizer, Mother Mary Angelica.”
“I would say if Mother Angelica had not founded EWTN, our Catholic outreach would have been a lot poorer,” Bishop Badejo said. “May her soul rest in perfect peace. Amen.”
Edward Pentin is the Rome correspondent for the Register.