The Secret Behind Mother Angelica's Success: Total Dependence on the Eucharist
COMMENTARY: Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, in imitation of her patroness St. Clare, nourished Mother Angelica’s successful union of television, at the service of the Gospel, and perpetual adoration.
Faithful Catholics in the British Isles feel a deep sense of gratitude to Mother Angelica for beaming EWTN into our homes. Desperate to receive good-quality Catholic catechesis, authentic Catholic devotions and reliable news about the Church, many of us purchased satellite dishes and receivers to watch EWTN from St. Clare Media (the EWTN Global Catholic Television and Radio charitable foundation for Great Britain). After a diet of secular programming from the BBC and mainstream media, watching Mother Angelica and EWTN was like finding an oasis in a very barren desert. By providential design, God raised up great communicators of the faith — and EWTN brought wisdom, prayer and humor to our families.
By any standard, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation is worthy to be numbered alongside other great communicators of the modern Catholic Church, such as Pope St. John Paul II, Venerable Fulton Sheen and Servant of God Father Patrick Peyton.
Mother Angelica met John Paul II on a number of occasions, when the Holy Father made known his personal admiration for Mother as a great communicator. Mother Angelica biographer and EWTN News Director Raymond Arroyo relates Mother’s encounter with Pope John Paul II in 1996 in Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve and a Network of Miracles:
“Observing the crutches, the braces and the visible weakness of his plump daughter, he walked back to her. Placing one hand atop her veil, he drew a cross on her forehead with the other. ‘Mother Angelica, weak in body, strong in spirit,’ he said. ‘Charismatic woman, charismatic woman.’”
The Paradox of Silence
Mother Angelica, like John Paul II, confronts us with the paradox of being a charismatic communicator, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who was rendered speechless towards the end of life. John Paul II’s capacity to communicate was damaged by surgery to his throat in the last year of his life, and Mother Angelica lost the ability to speak as a consequence of a stroke in 2001.
After decades of speaking, addresses, writing and public appearances before millions of people, both John Paul II and Mother Angelica witnessed to the world a deeper dimension of communication — the silence of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Who can forget the images of Pope John Paul II praying before the Blessed Sacrament in the papal chapel on Good Friday, just before his death? And over the past 15 years, everyone associated with EWTN and her millions of fans worldwide have been aware that Mother had entered more deeply into this sacred dimension of communication — the soul in silent adoration before the Eucharistic presence of our Savior. The thousands of words Mother spoke and wrote were a precursor to the one word of silent love she spoke as a Poor Clare to her spouse, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Mother Angelica’s Power to Communicate
The secret of Mother Angelica’s power as a great communicator, which she also shared with John Paul II and Venerable Fulton Sheen, was her total dependence on the Eucharist.
Pope John Paul wrote all of his speeches, articles and books in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. Archbishop Fulton Sheen is famous for his daily discipline of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, which he called “the hour that makes my day.”
Before establishing EWTN, Mother Angelica was well-known in Catholic circles for her popular series of 60-plus devotional books. Arroyo’s biography recounts that Mother Angelica wrote her books in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament:
“Sister Regina recalled watching Mother write in the chapel: ‘She would look up at Our Lord. And there would be a certain look in her eyes, like a droop, where you’d see mostly the white part — like the depth of her soul had been exposed. And you could see: It was like a tape recorder had gone on in her mind; she could hear the words, and she’d keep writing and writing.’”
A True Daughter of St. Clare of Assisi
Mother Angelica’s miraculous success in founding the Eternal Word Television Network shouldn’t surprise us, when we take into account the intercession of the foundress of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, St. Clare of Assisi, the patron saint of television. The two Eucharistic miracles and the last miracle of St. Clare can be seen as a wellspring that nourished Mother Angelica’s successful union of television, at the service of the Gospel, and perpetual adoration. Pope Benedict XVI said of St. Clare: Her “faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was so great that twice a miracle happened.” And Arroyo writes of Mother Angelica being “armed with St. Clare’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.”
Mother Angelica’s reliance on the Blessed Sacrament to defend EWTN, her two monastic foundations and the wider Church parallels St. Clare’s total trust in the Blessed Sacrament to protect her sisters and her convent of San Damiano, Assisi, from destruction by enemies. Thomas de Celano, a 13th-century Franciscan friar and a contemporary of St. Clare’s, gives an account of the saint’s Eucharistic devotion, which resonates with many episodes in Mother Angelica’s life:
“St. Clare, with a fearless heart, commanded them to lead her, sick as she was, to the enemy, preceded by a silver and ivory case in which the body of the saint of saints was kept with great devotion. And prostrating herself before the Lord, she spoke tearfully to her Christ: ‘Behold, my Lord, is it possible you want to deliver into the hands of pagans your defenseless handmaids, whom I have taught out of love for you? I pray you, Lord, protect these your handmaids, whom I cannot now save by myself.’ Suddenly, a voice like that of a child resounded in her ears from the tabernacle: ‘I will always protect you!’ ‘My Lord,’ she added, ‘if it is your wish, protect also this city, which is sustained by your love.’ Christ replied, ‘It will have to undergo trials, but it will be defended by my protection.’ Then the virgin, raising a face bathed in tears, comforted the sisters: ‘I assure you, daughters, that you will suffer no evil; only have faith in Christ.’ Upon seeing the courage of the sisters, the Saracens took flight and fled back over the walls they had scaled, unnerved by the strength of she who prayed.”
Mother Angelica’s dependency on the Eucharistic charism of both St. Francis and St. Clare can be seen in her insistence that the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, in Hanceville, Ala., should have the character of the 13th-century Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. And another explicit expression of this Franciscan inspiration was Mother’s foundation of the Knights of the Holy Eucharist in 1999.
Perhaps the working of God’s providence in the foundation and phenomenal growth of EWTN can be traced back to St. Clare’s last miracle. It is this miracle before Clare’s death that is responsible for her being named the patroness of television in 1958 by Venerable Pope Pius XII.
On Christmas Eve 1253, St. Clare was confined to bed in San Damiano, too ill to participate in the vigil of Our Lord’s Nativity at the Basilica of St. Francis. Although she was more than a mile away, St. Clare was granted a vision of the Mass on the wall of her dormitory. St. Clare could hear the organ recitals and could see the liturgy so clearly she could name the friars at the celebration. Naturally, St. Clare is one of the saints of EWTN — and her emblem, the monstrance, is prominently worn by Mother Angelica and her sisters.
Defender of the Blessed Sacrament
Through the platform given her by EWTN TV and EWTN Global Radio, Mother Angelica was able to catechize millions of Catholics about the worthy celebration of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass during a time of widespread liturgical experimentation, laxity and confusion. Through the daily transmission of the Mass conducted according to the rubrics of the Church, Mother Angelica did more than anyone else to protect and promulgate true veneration of, and devotion to, the Blessed Sacrament. During the desert years before Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio on the Roman liturgy, Summorum Pontificum, Mother Angelica’s insistence on the basic Latin prayers of the Mass preserved the heritage of the Latin-rite Catholic Church, so that it could be passed on to the young generations born after the Second Vatican Council.
As Cardinal James Francis Stafford expressed it:
“Mother Angelica represented the plain Catholic, who is 90% of the Church. Without her, the plain Catholic would have been further confused, but with her they had a clear vision of the beauty, glory and truth of the Church.”
Mother Angelica also taught her audience a keen sense of the real presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, during a time when certain theologians and bishops spread ambiguity and confusion about this most sacred dogma of the Catholic faith. And when some viewers complained about the rich decoration of the new chapel at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament — her “temple” to God — Mother Angelica gave her audience a basic lesson in liturgical catechesis with her characteristic “tough love”:
“Some people are criticizing the gold, the silver, the marble. You know what I think? I think you’ve lost it. Because you don’t object to big houses for kings and queens. You don’t object to the White House, which is much too big for two people. … What bothers me is we’re satisfied with the very least for God, but only the best for us.”
The Jewels of the Tabernacle
There is a hidden work of beautiful devotion at the heart of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. As Arroyo explains:
“Behind the altar, the tabernacle: a resplendent cathedral of glittering spires and hand-carved gold arresting the eye. Mother had ordered that the interior of the back wall of the tabernacle — home to the monastery’s most precious possession, the Eucharist — be encrusted with diamonds, visible only to the Occupant. Jesus deserved the very best.”
For the last 15 years of her life, spent hidden in prayer and suffering, Mother Angelica became the most precious jewel of the tabernacle, giving her very best to her Spouse, her humble life of contemplation. And in her silence, Mother Angelica communicated to those with ears to hear the glory of Our Risen Lord.
Deacon Nick Donnelly is a contributor to
EWTN Radio’s Celtic Connections program
and a columnist with Catholic Voice Ireland.