The Long, Painful Success of Mother Angelica

COMMENTARY

(photo: Photo courtesy of Raymond Arroyo)
You could always hear Mother Mary Angelica coming.

The thick rosary hanging alongside her hip would graze her aluminum crutches, adding a tinkling accompaniment to her slow progress. The juxtaposition of the cheerful sound and her pained movement might have seemed incongruous, only with Mother Angelica it wasn’t.

Her constant pain — caused by a genetic spinal defect and many other ailments — was “a gift,” she often said. “The Lord allowed pain before anything he asked me to do,” she once told me. “It kept me dependent on him to do whatever he asked of me.”

When Mother Angelica died on Easter Sunday at age 92, she was the only woman in the history of broadcast television who had founded and led a cable network as CEO and chairman of the board for 20 years. Her Eternal Word Television Network became the largest religious media empire on the planet, bringing a message of hope to 260 million households in more than 100 countries. The EWTN radio network broadcasts on more than 300 affiliates in the United States and a stand-alone Sirius channel.

None of it came easily. This multimedia giant was birthed in pain.

Born Rita Rizzo, Mother Angelica was abandoned by her father at age 5. Her mother suffered from manic depression, and Rita endured a difficult, impoverished childhood in Canton, Ohio.

After experiencing a healing that she was convinced was miraculous, she entered the cloistered life. Then while in the convent, she suffered a fall, which exacerbated her spinal problem. The nun began losing sensation in her legs.

Before a desperate back surgery in 1956, she made an impassioned pact with God: If he allowed her to walk again, she would build him a monastery in the South to pray for racial healing.

Mother Mary Angelica would indeed walk again. But only with the aid of crutches and pair of back and leg braces, leading her to comment years later: “When you make a deal with God, be very specific.”

Despite her limited mobility, she and a group of her Ohio sisters started a fishing-lure business to cover the cost of construction, and she built the promised monastery in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala.

For a cloistered nun in the largely Protestant South, she took on bold projects: She offered Bible instruction to a group of local Episcopalian women and then distributed those talks on audiotape. She wrote pamphlets on the spiritual life, gave talks all over the country and appeared on national evangelical talk shows.

Mother Angelica’s street-smart, biting humor and traditional Christian teachings attracted a following in the late 1970s, when her recorded programs aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

In 1981, with little broadcast experience and only $200 in the bank, at 58, she launched EWTN in a bare-bones studio on the site of her monastery’s garage. For the next 20 years, despite being beset by new health woes — an enlarged heart, diabetes, severe asthma and more — Mother Angelica presided over the remarkable expansion of EWTN into a 24-hour enterprise.

Then, at the apex of her fame, Mother Angelica fully embraced the suffering people she had long served — becoming one of them. On Christmas Eve 2001, Mother endured the greatest physical trial of her life, when she was felled by a debilitating stroke. It nearly killed her, limiting her speech and effectively ending her public career. But it didn’t stop her mission.

As I relate in the forthcoming book Mother Angelica: Her Grand Silence — The Last Years and Living Legacy (Image), for the next 15 years, in her monastery cell, Mother Angelica offered her pain to God. I once asked her, shortly after her stroke, why God would allow the voice of one of the Church’s great evangelizers to fall silent. Without hesitating, she pointed to herself and said, “Purification. My purification.”

During her long confinement, Mother Angelica became the silent, contemplative nun she had first vowed to be. Yet during those years, more people heard her voice and received her teachings than at any time before. I received hundreds of letters from people who salvaged their marriages, reformed their lives, beat back addiction and overcame loss, all due to her prayers and words.

Then, on this Easter Sunday, the day the Church remembers Christ’s victory over death, Mother Angelica’s 92 years of living in the shadow of an extended Good Friday came to an end when she escaped to her reward. By uniting her suffering with that of her Savior, her work persisted beyond infirmity, and now even beyond death.

If you don’t believe me, turn on her network.

Reverend Mother’s still there, reaching those who need her most.

Raymond Arroyo is EWTN’s managing editor of news, a New York Times best-selling author,

most recently of Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls (Random House Kids),

and author of the forthcoming Mother Angelica: Her Grand Silence — The Last Years and Living Legacy (Image).

Photo courtesy of Raymond Arroyo