Spirited Women: Keeping Company With Female Saints

MOTHER ANGELICA COMMENTARY: Holy Spirit Gave Church Important Religious Figure at Providential Time

(photo: EWTN.com/motherangelica)

Mother Angelica’s death on Easter Sunday produced much commentary, in both the Catholic and secular press, that puzzled over how a nun reputed for orthodoxy could have had such a series of clashes with bishops, cardinals and even the Roman Curia. Weren’t champions of orthodoxy supposed to be lackeys of the hierarchy? Did Mother Angelica purport to be on the side of Tradition, but in reality conduct herself as a liberal “cafeteria Catholic”?

Mother Angelica was both orthodox in doctrine and traditional in practice. The Tradition to which she belonged is most venerable. She was a mulier fortis (strong woman), belonging to a long line of religious women who were pioneers in apostolic creativity and boldness. That’s a traditional role for religious women, even when — or especially when — it puts them at odds with bishops. Even in the moments when Mother Angelica’s passion provoked an intemperate outburst — far less frequent than her delightful wit — one could imagine that St. Catherine of Siena would understand.

Mother Angelica was in strict continuity with American saints Mother Frances Cabrini and Mother Katharine Drexel, who founded vast apostolic works, convinced that God was calling them to great things, even if the clergy did not seem to recognize it. Legion are the stories of bishops facing a formidable Mother Teresa, to be canonized later this year, who knew how to insist that what needed to be done got done.

EWTN is one of the most important developments in the Church since the Second Vatican Council and has arguably done more than almost anything else to embrace the call of Vatican II for lay Catholics to participate in the evangelical mission of the Church. Indeed, perhaps the best prism through which to look at Mother Angelica’s EWTN is that of the new ecclesial movements and lay apostolates given encouragement by Vatican II. Mother Angelica founded a monastery and religious orders, which are not “new movements.” But the enterprise of EWTN had something of that about it, a new thing being done by the Spirit in a manner not seen before.

Three significant papal interventions — two theological from John Paul II and Benedict XVI and one pastoral from Francis — help to understand how the Spirit worked in the life of Mother Angelica.

In 1987, St. John Paul used his annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia to speak about the link between Mariology and ecclesiology in the context of the special Marian holy year. The Holy Father drew upon a tradition in which the Church could be understood in various “profiles” according to principal Gospel figures — Mary, Peter, Paul and John. The Petrine profile emphasizes authority; the Pauline profile emphasizes the Church’s missionary preaching; the Johannine profile emphasizes the contemplative vocation.

St. John Paul emphasized that the primary profile of the Church is given by Mary, the Church of discipleship, the Church of spousal union with God, receptive to his grace and fruitful in making the Word flesh in the world. The Marian profile is superior even to the Petrine profile, though not in opposition to it.

“This link between the two profiles of the Church, the Marian and the Petrine, is therefore profound and complementary,” John Paul said. “This is so even though the Marian profile is anterior not only in the design of God but also in time, as well as being supreme and pre-eminent, richer in personal and communitarian implications for individual ecclesial vocations.”

In John Paul’s view, the Petrine profile — the apostolic succession — was meant to serve the other profiles, especially the Marian profile. In Mother Angelica, the profile of spousal union and discipleship (Marian), the profile of missionary boldness in EWTN (Pauline) and the contemplative monastic and religious foundations (Johannine) did come into occasional conflict with bishops near and far, though this should not be overemphasized. In the history of the Church, this is not new; a 24-hour cable television station was new, and so gave these conflicts wider notice.

In 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave a major address to the “new movements” in the Church, suggesting that the tension that they sometimes came into with legitimate Church authority was not unexpected, or even to be avoided. The charism of authority was necessary, but the Holy Spirit also did new things, and this inspiration had to be evaluated by authority without suffocating it. That discernment could sometimes provoke difficulties.

In 2006, as pope, Benedict had his own meeting with new movements, and spoke of them as being centers of freedom in the Church.

“The ecclesial movements want to and must be schools of freedom, of this true freedom,” Benedict said in his Pentecost address to the gathered movements. “We want the true, great freedom, the freedom of heirs, the freedom of children of God. In this world, so full of fictitious forms of freedom that destroy the environment and the human being, let us learn true freedom by the power of the Holy Spirit; to build the school of freedom; to show others by our lives that we are free and how beautiful it is to be truly free with the true freedom of God’s children.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of Mother Angelica was her great freedom. Though bearing enormous responsibilities in sometimes very difficult circumstances, she had the serene freedom of one who knows that the Holy Spirit blows where he wills. Even though she would joke that her “stomach did know of my strong faith,” she was not paralyzed by a failure of intestinal fortitude.

Finally, it is easy to recognize the ministry of Mother Angelica in one of the signature texts of Pope Francis, his hagan lio!” (make a mess!) address to Argentinian youth gathered in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in 2013.

“I hope there will be mess,” the Holy Father said. “Here there will be a mess, I’m quite sure. Here in Rio there will be plenty of noise, no doubt about that. But I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves.”

By 2013, Mother Angelica, confined by infirmity, was no longer able to offer comment on World Youth Day, as she most famously did in Denver 1993. Yet it is plausible to think that Mother Angelica, who knew more than most about the deadening status quo protected by clericalism, would have recognized her life’s work in that. She made herself heard, in the streets of the information age, making a great noise for Christ and the Gospel. Requiescat in pace.

Father Raymond J. De Souza 

is editor in chief of  Convivium magazine.

He has been appointed to serve as

a jubilee year missionary of mercy by the Holy See.

EWTN photo