Remembering Mother Angelica – And Why She Mattered

Mother Angelica died five years ago this past week – March 27, 2016 – at the age of 92.  Some Catholics were, of course quite familiar with her.  Or perhaps you were one of those people flipping through the channels on Cable TV and came across the fat old nun in her stiff black and white religious habit who looked almost like a caricature of the nuns that so many told stories about from their grade school years.  That was her.

For those not familiar, she was the product of a family damaged by divorce, mental instability and poverty in depression-era Canton, Ohio, and who became a Poor Clare nun in 1945 at the age of 22.  In other words, she was folded into that great number of nuns who were the backbone of the Catholic educational system through at least the 1950s.  But she stood apart from the rest of the sisters in one important way – in 1981 she began broadcasting on cable TV from the garage of her convent, and thus began the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), a platform that today may be the largest religious broadcasting organization in existence, said to reach over a quarter-billion souls worldwide.

But as important as that may have been, there was a lot more to her than that.

There was a lot written about her in the week or so following her death and some more in the past week.  Much of it recognized how she started with no money or experience, but with little besides both a will and a faith as strong as iron, built and ran a worldwide broadcasting operation.  And how she did so as a woman in the male-dominated structure of the Catholic Church, a feat not duplicated in the secular broadcasting world. But most of what I have seen has missed one essential point:  Mother Angelica mattered because she did what the “official church” failed to do in the wake of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s: she taught us the Catholic faith.

In a prior era, our Catholic Bishops, Parish Priests, nuns, brothers, schools and universities had taken the faith that they had received and passed it on to the next generation.  But by the late 1960’s, things began to change.  It is said that Generals are always ready to fight the last war, and I think the same idea holds true with much of the Church hierarchy.  The perceived need was to bring Catholics out of the simple faith learned by rote in the “old neighborhoods” and into a more nuanced and reasoned faith more consistent with the modern believer.  Both my generation and that of my children were told repeatedly that 1) Jesus loves us and 2) that we should try to be more like him.  Both of these things are quite true, of course, but they hardly explained to we Catholics why we should be going to Mass at the Parish and not either attending a non-denominal mega-church or just meditating on Sunday mornings.  We as a Church traded basic knowledge for an attempt at deeper understanding – and sadly we wound up with neither.

By the 1980’s, Mother Angelica found herself increasingly surrounded by a Church where many tried to minimize or outright eliminate many of the “hard topics” that been part of the faith for millennia.  But unlike many of us who may have sat around in a foggy state of general unease or dissatisfaction, Mother Angelica did something about it.

She was no theologian, and she knew it.  But she had a sense of the genius of a faith that could bring an illiterate peasant woman to the same altar as brilliant intellects like those of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or Jerome Lejeune (the twentieth-century pediatrician and geneticist who discovered the genetic defect that causes Down’s Syndrome).  What Mother Angelica did was to make a broadcast home for those who loved the rich tapestry that is the full Catholic faith, in all its simplicity and complexity.

Mother Angelica would have never taken credit for the brilliant idea to proclaim the Catholic faith from modern media.  She referred to herself as a Dodo, but a Dodo who was ready to do anything and everything for her Jesus.  It is telling that as her network became a media powerhouse, she never “went Hollywood” by enriching herself or seeking fame – at least for any purpose beyond the Glory of God.  When one hears the word “televangelist”, some come to mind who sought political office or who were ruined by weakness in the face of previously unimagined wealth.  Not Mother.

She was often direct to the point of being blunt.  She suffered fools gladly, so long as they were not pompous, condescending fools – and there was no shortage of tart words for those folks.  And she certainly had a temper.  In other words, she was the same Rita Rizzo that she had been her whole life.  But she also connected with people in a way that made it so clear that she loved them and wanted nothing but the best for them – and that best was Jesus, and his church.

Much has happened in the Catholic Church in the five years since her death – and not a lot of it has been good.  I can only imagine what she might have had to say about the many recent examples of clergy misconduct and the increasing lack of clarity about what the Catholic Church stands for.  But perhaps Mother’s way is the best way to react ourselves.  Mother Angelica would have suffered sorrow and heartbreak for those harmed and would have responded with much prayer – and some healthy, cleansing blasts of clarity that have been lacking from too many in the hierarchy.  

Love her or not, Mother Angelica was a rare force who practiced what she preached and gave as good as she got. I will confess that I started to get lost in the many pithy quotes available online – the kind that show her unique ability to distill some very complex theology into a phrase that anyone can understand. The world and the Catholic Church need more like her.

Image Credits:

Opening photo from the Catholic News Agency. The remaining visual quotations with images were found at al.com, azquotes.com, Churchpop.com, Pinterest and aflowerofgod.blogspot.com.

15 thoughts on “Remembering Mother Angelica – And Why She Mattered

  1. “The world and the Catholic Church need more like her.”

    So, so true. My exposure to Mother Angelica has been minimal but, oh goodness, was she ever memorable. Her talent of delivering the harsh truth is a trait that would benefit from being cultivated among many (and not just Catholics) in current times.

    Great post, Jim.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Most of my exposure to her was occasionally catching her shows rebroadcast on radio when I was in the car. I read a bio written about her and she was a remarkable lady.

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  2. I’ve never heard of Mother Angelica, so I looked at a few YouTube examples. Pretty gutsy to set up and run that organization.

    I’m still thinking that a well executed middle ground has to be the way forward. I’ve seen so many congregations stick to the old way and firmly nail irrelevance. That includes both congregations where Tammy and I grew up, which have withered to a handful of old folks. Then on the other side of the coin is our United Church of Canada, which has embraced inclusivity to the point where nothing matters. Well, if nothing matters then why are we doing this? And so they’ve lost 90% of their members since the mid 60’s. Tough decisions!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Young adults coming (back) to the Catholic Church are trending towards the traditional and nobody does traditional like we Catholics when we set our minds to it. Not that there are huge numbers. Then again, there is a young Minnesota priest (Father Mike Schmitz) who started a podcast where he goes through the Bible in a year and it has ranked near the top in downloads since January, so who knows.

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  3. As a Methodist I suppose I have an excuse for not having heard of Mother Angelica, but I wish I had. Her quotes underscore her insight, wit, and intelligence. Indeed, it would be very interesting to get her take on present-day Catholicism (including the choice of Francis as Pope). Is the broadcast still in good hands, or is it not the same since her passing?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think would be frustrated with Francis’ tendencies towards ambiguity. I think they may still be re running her old shows, as nobody could replace her on air. But she only had an hour or so a day and there remains lots of other people and programming. It will be interesting to see if the network can find its place in a world where podcasts are king.

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  4. Great post, I miss seeing Mother Angelica. She was such a “straight shooter,” I mean she didn’t mince words and that’s what I liked about her. I always seemed to come across her broadcast when she was going to do the rosary. Yesterday, I was watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday interview with Sister Joan Chittister. Sister Joan is a voice to be heard as well. Similar to Mother Angelica, they have their opinions and feel that it is there duty to spread the word. She’s very fiery and has convictions that I believe in too. Thanks again for this wonderful post on Mother Angelica. I didn’t know her background.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is a really good bio written by Raymond Arroyo back when Mother was still alive. I need to re read it.

      I am less familiar with Sr. Joan, except for her writing in the National Catholic Reporter. Perhaps my being a Catholic convert disposed me more towards Mother Angelica’s more traditional outlook. Most who prefer the writing at the Reporter are those who came of age during the exciting times after Vatican II. I saw that worldview as inching towards the protestant world I chose to leave behind, so it never spoke to me as strongly. But I should check out her recent columns.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I don’t read the Catholic Reporter. In fact, I didn’t know who Sister Joan was… I just like to watch Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, she has interesting interviews with people. Sister Joan was on. She had an interview with Tom Brady and the CEO of LinkedIn (that was good too). I don’t watch much football, so was interesting to hear Brady’s background. What’s nice is you can pick and choose which interviews you’d like to listen too.

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  5. I was raised Catholic but am not familiar with her, although I am with the broadcasting network. She sounds like my kind of woman, strong and opinionated! It must be a nun-trait, as I had two great aunts who were the same, but great fun too. They both taught well into their old age, and were still active and writing Christmas letters well into their 90’s.

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