Presenting the Truth of the Reformation

Father Mitch Pacwa has become familiar to viewers of the Eternal Word Television Network as host of “EWTN Live” and “Threshold of Hope.”

But the Jesuit priest also heads a production company, Ignatius Productions, that has produced videos on Islam, Christ’s resurrection, the Gnostic gospels and the Church in Sudan.

He and his team have begun work on a new project with a target date of Oct. 31, 2017. That’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, setting off the Protestant Reformation. Father Pacwa knows there will be a need for a faithful Catholic presentation of the history of the Reformation in the face of secular documentaries that will be made.

He spoke about it, as well as his relationship with EWTN and the latest news about Mother Angelica, the network’s founder, with the Register’s news editor, John Burger.

How did you get involved originally with EWTN?

I was in grad school at Vanderbilt in Nashville. One Saturday morning, I heard this anti-Catholic sermon on the radio. I called up the station because the station manager was the wife of one of my classmates and complained to her. She said, “We can’t change it, but what we can do is have you on our live call-in show, and you can answer questions about Catholicism.”

So I did. I had a good time doing it, and so did they, so they invited me back again and again; and eventually I had my own radio show on that Protestant station called “A Catholic View of Scripture.”

With the economic downturn of 1983, they ran out of money. But it was from there that I got into a TV show, and Deacon Bill Steltemeier, chairman of the board of EWTN, heard the radio show and TV show, so he got Mother to invite me down. From the very first show, Mother and I hit it off. We liked each other and had a great time together on the program.

During that first program, she doubled the show. She said, “Look, this is so much fun, we’re going to go for two hours.” She even said, “That’s the good thing about owning your own network; if you like what you do, you can bump off the rest.”

Then during one of the breaks she asked me to come back and do a TV series, and ever since I’ve been making TV series. That was in 1984.

You sort of filled in for her when she had her stroke didn’t you?

She had had two strokes, a minor one, and then a serious one — on 9/11, in fact — in the morning of 9/11, five or six hours before the attacks on New York. So she was in the hospital with the stroke, then 9/11 happened, so it was a double shock for EWTN.

I was just finishing up my career at University of Dallas. I had just finished my last classes, and I was at the network to do a show that had been arranged for months before that. She asked me to come and help her. So I said, “Well, I have to ask my superiors.” They said yes on Dec. 22, 2001, and she had a cerebral hemorrhage on Dec. 24. So it ended up being very providential that I had just finished working at University of Dallas, and I hadn’t been assigned anywhere yet, and my superiors assigned me to go there. They were very clear, too, that I was being missioned to go to EWTN.

How is Mother Angelica?

She’s pretty much the same. The hemorrhage was on the left side of her brain, where the speech center is. She speaks a little by rerouting around that part, especially when she’s with the sisters. She’s comfortable with them, and they understand her. She doesn’t do any writing. She reads a little, but not whole books.
She also prays and watches television. She keeps an eye on me.

But she can’t get out of bed for Mass, and it’s difficult for her to get into a wheelchair, so she watches Mass on EWTN, and someone brings her holy Communion. She tires very easily, her ability to stay awake is limited, and she has experienced muscle atrophy.

I went to see her and brought her a collection of old Jack Benny shows. One of Mother’s great abilities was a natural comedic timing, much like Jack Benny. But she had never seen his shows, since in those days the convent didn’t have a television.

She laughed her head off. In fact, at one point, she was laughing so hard she started choking. They had to take the DVDs away for a while.

How’s everything going at EWTN? How is the network faring in this time of economic difficulties?

I cannot speak well enough of our viewing audience. Of course it’s hard for everybody, and during this downturn there were a few periods when we went way below in terms of income because we still depend on gifts that people send us. A couple of times we were over $300,000 in the hole for a month. I would tell viewers, “Of course everybody’s hurting, but if everybody gives a little bit, that will make a difference,” and sure enough, they respond, and they put us back in the black. It should be clear to people that EWTN is not paying huge salaries. This is not something for moneymaking. I went from being the lowest-paid college professor to EWTN, and I took a 10% pay cut to do it. Finally after seven years being there I’m back up to where I was. For me it doesn’t matter; I get what my order gives me — just what I need to live on. But my order didn’t flinch at that.
The issue is the apostolate, that we can serve the Church and serve Jesus. I know that the rest of the staff could easily make much more money somewhere else, and very generously we have folks who are working at the network making far less than they could elsewhere in the industry. And they’re doing it for the same reasons: They love Christ; they love his Church, and they love Mother Angelica. We all do. She inspired us to be as generous as we can with Our Lord, and that’s what we want to do.

Tell me about this video project that you are working on for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

One of the things I think is very important is that the secular press typically misrepresents people of faith, so our goal is to give a balanced presentation on the subject. They want to emphasize that this was a way to have a freedom from the Church, and then as they deal with that, they continue on with their goal of attacking religion as a whole. That is fairly standard M.O. So I would like to present a more balanced picture of what was happening at the time of the Reformation, making sure the data about the Reformation is presented very carefully, very fairly, so everyone involved can have a sense that this is not as simple as you may have once thought.

What will it involve as far as preparation for the project?

There are a number of elements. First of all: The way we want to present the topic is to include scholars who are familiar with the field, those who not only deal with the problem at the time of the reformers, but what were the variety of issues that led up to the Reformation. There were concerns about the meaning of the sacraments that go back to the 11th century. Berengarius, for example, was a deacon in Southern France who was the first theologian to deny the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. One of the reasons it’s so significant is that, given how late that is, you have people arguing against it, and the term transubstantiation is a term developed precisely in response to Berengarius.

The Avignon residency was certainly a problem, when the popes lived in France rather than in Rome, and focus a little bit on how that also had an influence on the development of the Reformation. Why? What was going on in terms of the Reformation and the ideas of the Renaissance? Because some forms of the Renaissance were strongly committed to restoration of pagan ideas. Paganism was certainly one of the attractive forces in the Reformation, not that the reformers were pagans, but notions of freedom developed by some of the early Renaissance figures were very influential on ideas that developed into nationalism, that the nation was placed over the Church would be an example of one of those influences.

Are you concerned about Protestant reaction to a documentary like this?

I’m not, actually, because the goal is not to fight against Protestants. I don’t think that the Protestants are going to be a big concern at all. I’m much more concerned at how the secular media is going to present the Reformation. When I look at the History Channel, I’m convinced they will be equally insulting to all comers. They will not be pro-Protestant. They will be antagonistic to the various religions. I’m convinced the secular media will use the Reformation simply as a way to attack all Christians. There’s already been one series where they were saying how bad the Catholics were and there’s so much corruption in the Church. And then after it sounded like they were very kind to the Protestant reformers, they turned around and attacked Luther as an anti-Semite. So any fears we have of reflecting badly on Protestants is nothing compared to what we should expect the Protestants will be experiencing, as well. There is an anti-Christian concern that is at stake here, not anti-Protestant, and the faster all the communities understand that the better off they’ll be in working on the issues.

In fact, the mainline Protestant churches are relatively small communities. The Episcopalians in this country are a little over 2 million, and the Presbyterian Church USA is about the same. So this is a very small community. I don’t find them threatening Catholicism or anything like that. What I do see as a threat to all the Christian communities are the secular folks in the media. We live in a time of very aggressive atheism. That’s not the first time it’s happened. Aggressive atheism certainly took over Russia when it became the Soviet Union, took over China, Cambodia, Nazi Germany. Aggressive atheists have been around, but they’re also extremely destructive. They try to pass off the falsehood, particularly related to the Reformation, that religion is the biggest cause of war in the history of the world. That is patent nonsense. The wars of Christianity, according to the research done at the history department of Baylor University, account for about 5 million people being killed, whereas the wars of atheism in the 20th century alone, or secularism in the case of World War I — 20 million people died in World War I’s nationalistic war, which is a secular ideology — that was three times as many as the Christians. Hitler’s and the Japanese Empire’s war was 50 million, and the KGB said that 62 million were starved to death or executed during the Soviet period. And with China, they don’t know yet; guesstimates go as high as 200 million.
So these very dangerous atheists are my concern.

Is it also part of your hope that bringing out the truth of this period in the Church would help Protestants come around on the side of the Catholic Church?

Certainly, I would be most interested in seeing Protestants become open to Catholicism. That’s always going to be. I’m a Catholic. And I think the Catholic Church is teaching the truth. So I’m going to stay with Catholicism because I do believe that it’s true.
But when I disagree with Protestants, as I often do, I want to disagree with them on the basis of correct information about Protestantism and about Catholicism. I don’t want misinformation about either community. There is plenty of fault to go around as far as the Reformation is concerned. As the prophet Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray; every one to his own way.” As Catholics we are not on the side that was completely innocent; neither are Protestants. So our task is definitely going to have to be one of trying to better understand what were the situations. And, for instance, there has been a good deal of research on the circumstances of the pre-Reformation period showing it was not so totally corrupt as sometimes it is portrayed in popular understandings of the Reformation. Like most of life, it’s more complicated than that. So we want to deal with all the complexities that exist so that we can better work on understanding what was done then and what were the issues at stake for the individuals of that time period. That’s another big issue: making sure we understand their terminology and their issues from their own perspective rather than sometimes reading in our own concerns to their perspective.

It sounds like it’s going to require more than just one hour of video.

At this time we’ve sketched out 10 one-hour shows. We want this to have a very complete perspective, and we want it to be of such a quality that it will play well on a wide variety of programming. We want it available for the secular media; they would be foolish not to include it in their programming because we want it to be of good quality. We plan to include dramatizations; for instance there are transcripts of the debates between Catholics and the reformers, and we’d like to dramatize some key elements of those debates from that time period, and we’d also like to dramatize some of the key events and some of the characters. One of the things I hope to do, along with one of the scholars I have not yet contacted, is to have a very complete understanding of the Fifth Lateran Council and the Council of Trent. The Fifth Lateran Council took place right before Luther began the Reformation. What were the successes, what were the failures of that council? That’s going to be one of the concerns, especially how that council was picked up in the period after. In terms of understanding some of the Catholic response to abuses that existed, the Lateran Council was very important.

We also intend to deal full well with a variety of scoundrels that existed in the Church. Certainly, the politicization of the Church was a very important dynamic. So we’ll deal with Alexander VI and Julius II and Leo X, but we’re also going to deal with the variety of saints who arose in the period prior to the Reformation to start a variety of reform movements, such as St. Catherine of Genoa and St. Bernardine of Siena; the Theatines, an order that was a reform group prior to the Reformation. Perhaps even the Franciscan Minims.

Plus, the factors going into the problems that occurred without the fault of the Church. You had the bubonic plague wiping out a third of Europe, and that had a great devastating impact on the monasteries and the influence of the bubonic plague having some orders lose their fervor. It was during the bubonic plague period that the Carmelites let their rule lapse. But it was St. Teresa of Avila who restored them, but it took a long while after the plague was over before the reformation of the Carmelites took place; but it was a reformation that took place without any reference to Protestantism; it was a purely Catholic reformation.

Ignatius Loyola was also someone who wrote not to counter the Protestant Reformation, as is often portrayed, but for reform within the Church. That’s why the Jesuits were founded.

What would be your point in bringing in these Catholic reformers?

One of the popular images is that the Church was so thoroughly corrupt that the Reformation had to take place, whereas, in fact, St. Catherine of Genoa was bringing reforms already. There were reform movements on the move that never had to separate from the Church and did have a great impact on the Church.

The reform in England had nothing to do with corruption among the clergy. The clergymen and the monasteries were really in pretty good shape, and I’m hoping to go to England and interview some of the scholars who have been reassessing the situation of the Church in England before the Reformation.

So this will involve going on location?

We very much want to do some of this work on location. That’s why it’s going to be a little expensive. But we’ve managed to do a lot of on-location work, and we try to keep our costs as low as possible. We don’t have Hollywood budgets. But we get some good work done. We’ve already made, with my production company, a number of documentaries, many of them for Ignatius Press.

John Burger is the Register’s news editor.