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.
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.