Mother Angelica: The remarkable story of a nun, her nerve and a network of miricles.
In a few choice words, Raymond Arroyo nicely sums up the paradoxes of Mother Angelica: "the cloistered, contemplative nun who speaks to the world, the independent rule breaker who is derided as a 'rigid conservative;' the wisecracking comedian who suffers near constant pain; the Poor Clare nun who runs a multi-million dollar corporation". In this impressive biography, Arroyo recounts how Mother Angelica achieved her remarkable accomplishments the creation of an $800 million Catholic communications network and a $50 million Shrine to the Blessed Sacrament--all the while remaining, at heart, "a deeply spiritual woman struggling to do God's will and overcome her personal failings".
A successful journalist, Arroyo is currently the news director of the Eternal Word Television Network. As an employee, friend, and fellow Italian, be easily persuaded Mother Angelica to cooperate on this biography. Not only did she make available her letters, the community's archives, her medical records, and her nuns, but she also agreed to lengthy weekly interviews that continued for almost three years. Shortly after the end of these interviews, when a debilitating stroke seriously impacted her ability to communicate, Arroyo understood his unique responsibility to tell the story of Mother Angelica.
Born on April 20, 1923, Rita Rizzo was raised by her emotionally unstable divorced mother in Canton, Ohio during the Depression. But, after a miraculous healing, her piety continued to deepen until she entered a contemplative order of Poor Clare nuns on August 15, 1944. To help her accept Rita's vocation, her own mother was allowed to choose her religious name--Sister Mary Angelica of the Angels. First in Cleveland, then in Canton, Ohio, Angelica showed a flair for spiritual direction and construction projects, as well as a great capacity to endure pain. Throughout the book, Arroyo shows "how sufferings altered the teachings and person of Sister Angelica".
When surgery on her spine threatened to leave her unable to walk, Angelica promised: "Lord, if you let me walk again, I'll build you a monastery in the South". This eventually led to the foundation of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, in Irondale, outside Birmingham, Alabama in 1961. Once in the South, even though she was a cloistered nun, Angelica began using the media to evangelize the Bible Belt, first with speeches and mini-books, later with vinyl records and cassettes.
Then, on a trip to Chicago in 1978, Angelica visited a Baptist television studio. Realizing, at once, the potential of television to spread the Faith, she remarked, "Lord, I gotta have one of these". Back home, she immediately began taping half-hour programs for a local station. But when it planned to air a blasphemous miniseries, called The Word, she vowed to set up her own studio. As Arroyo points out, Angelica's decision to create the Eternal Word Television Network coincided with the beginning of the papacy of John Paul II.
Before EWTN aired its first show on August 15, 1981, Angelica had to obtain a licence from the FCC, purchase a satellite dish, equip a television studio in her garage, and hire staff Saddled with a $1million debt and $1.5 million in operating expenses, she relied completely on Divine Providence. Then, as the network continued to grow, in 1988, Angelica became convinced that Our Lord was asking her to build a short-wave radio network. When this was completed, she could broadcast the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
From its inception, EWTN was set up as a non profit civil corporation run by lay people, but the abbess and vicar of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery had permanent seats on its board of directors. Its mission statement was to advance "the truth as defined by the Magisterium ... and to serve the orthodox belief and teaching of the Church". According to Arroyo, "no one in America, and perhaps in the world, did more than Mother Angelica to perpetuate and stoke interest in the rosary, eucharistic adoration, Latin in the liturgy, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, litanies, and traditional prayers". No wonder Pope John Paul II remarked: "EWTN is the key to restoring the Roman Catholic Church in America".
Many in the American hierarchy, however, resented her power and her ability to choose which bishops she would allow to speak on her network. But even the veneer of cooperation between EWTN and the bishops ended over the portrayal of Christ as a woman in the Stations of the Cross at World Youth Day in Denver. Feeling that she had been duped into broadcasting this blasphemy into 32 million homes, Mother Angelica exploded: "I am so tired of you, liberal church in America ... I resent your pushing your anti-Catholic, ungodly ways upon the masses in this country". According to Arroyo, "in that short half hour in Denver, Mother Angelica had summoned an orthodox crusade, challenging those who felt disenfranchised and confused by the continuing changes within the Church to stand firm and to cede no further ground".
And in disputes with two members of the hierarchy, she did just that. On her show on November 12, 1997, she criticized Cardinal Mahoney's pastoral letter for its questionable explanation of the Eucharist and called for disobedience. The ensuing vendetta by Mahoney against Angelica makes for fascinating, if not edifying, reading and Arroyo is to be commended for not glossing over this controversy.
In the second dispute, the bishop of her own diocese, David Foley, refused to let the friars say Mass facing East in the new Shrine to the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. Arroyo suggests that, even though he knew he had overstepped his authority, Foley, like Mahoney, had become obsessed with who controlled Mother Angelica and EWTN. And as they had hoped, the second dispute with a bishop prompted Rome to appoint an Apostolic Visitor into the life and affairs of Mother Angelica's monastery.
The Visitor, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez, concentrated on three things: the ownership of the network, the monastery's right to give property to EWTN, and, since she had never been elected, the legitimacy of Mother Angelica's authority as an abbess. Gonzalez contended that everything Angelica had done was invalid because she had not secured appropriate permissions. Before the Visitor could write his report, Mother Angelica decided that to protect EWTN she had to sever all of her ties to the network. Fearing that she might be ordered to make changes to the network or its board, or even to appoint a "progressive" successor, Mother Angelica resigned as CEO and Chairman of the Board of EWTN on March 6, 2000. Accepting her resignation, the board altered its bylaws so that the abbess and vicar of the monastery would no longer hold positions on it. Although he had not believed it at first, Arroyo came to the conclusion that "stratagems were fermenting and plans were afoot to capture her network". But, by resigning, Mother Angelica had defeated her enemies within the Church and entrusted her network to lay people who shared her orthodox views.
Few in the vast EWTN audience on television, shortwave or the internet were aware that anything had changed. Until her stroke in 2001, Mother Angelica continued to host her live programs and, even now, in taped reruns, she is still very much a presence on the network she founded.
Today, despite her limited ability to communicate, Arroyo insists that Mother Angelica is happy. And perhaps one thing contributing to her happiness is this splendid biography by Raymond Arroyo. Thoroughly researched and well written, it captures the essential Angelica. One of its great strengths, in fact, is that Arroyo allows Angelica to speak directly to the reader through extensive quotes. For instance, when she was in dire financial straits and had to beg for funds in a telethon, she quipped: "All right, cough it up, kids."
And Arroyo's own robust style meshes nicely with Angelica's. Describing the nun, he writes, "her rounded cheeks spilled on the sides of the wimple like a pink pillow crammed into a shoe box" and Bishop David Foley looks "like a middle-aged hobbit with a voice borrowed from Mr. Magoo". Such vivid language does not seem over the top in writing the larger-than-life story of Mother Angelica.
No doubt, in time, there will be other biographics of the extraordinary cloistered nun who built the largest Catholic media empire in the world. And there are bound to be other books that shed more light on some of the conflicts with the American hierarchy and still others that evaluate her impact on the Church. But it is hard to imagine that there will ever be a biography more sympathetic to Mother Angelica or more enjoyable to read.
BOOK REVIEWED BY JOAN TARDIF