Three years ago, when Raymond Arroyo told me that he was going to write the biography of Mother Angelica, the formidable foundress of EWTN, I had to admit to some skepticism. Was there enough of a story there to warrant a full-scale biography? Could an EWTN employee tell the story frankly, fairly, and without premature hagiography?
This past April, in Rome, Raymond gave me a copy of the proofs of his book. Five nights of reading later, my initial skepticism had completely abated. Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles, just published by Doubleday, is a rattling good tale of fear and faith, courage and bulldog tenacity. It’s also high drama from start to finish.
No one in their right mind would have expected Rita Rizzo, whom the world would later know as “Mother Angelica,” to build the first global Catholic media empire. Not to put too fine a point on it, clan Rizzo’s misadventures give the words “dysfunctional family” new depths of meaning. A cruel father and an endlessly neurotic mother weave in and out of a story that, while set in the same period of time, certainly isn’t Going My Way. Nor are her early days in the convent easy for Angelica, as she’s beset by unimaginative superiors, not always sympathetic colleagues, and serious health problems.
None of this suggests capacities that would eventually parallel those of a Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner — yet that is what Mother Angelica became. How she imagined a global Catholic television empire, the faith with which she built it (coming within an ace of bankruptcy at times), and how she successfully fought off attempts to seize what she had built: it’s quite a compelling story, full of plot twists and turns, and not without its moments of failure. And to his credit, Raymond Arroyo gives us Mother Angelica in full. This is no plaster saint; this is a woman whose shrewd judgment is sometimes blunted by the fierce temper that once led her to pitch a knife at her uncle when she was seventeen.
Still, at the end, what the reader takes away from this book is a deep respect for Mother Angelica’s faith and courage. EWTN’s style of Catholic piety may not be universally appreciated. But no one who cares about the new evangelization should gainsay the accomplishment of this dumpling of a nun who pulled off something the institutional Church in the United States spectacularly failed to manage — the creation of a 24/7 Catholic presence on television.
Raymond Arroyo doesn’t put it quite this way, but one can read the Mother Angelica story as a metaphor for the Catholic situation in the U.S. these past forty years. As in all great periods of reform — and the Second Vatican Council was intended by John XXIII as a reforming Council, a Council to give the Church a new burst of evangelical energy — the post-conciliar period following Vatican II has been filled with tension between the institutional and charismatic elements in the Church: between expanding Church bureaucracies and various forms of spiritual entrepreneurship. Sometimes those tensions can be creative; sometimes they get nasty. It would be difficult to describe the tensions between EWTN and the U.S. bishops’ conference as “creative;” but those tensions, which Arroyo describes without rancor, are, at the very least, instructive — although one can wonder how well the conference has learned the lessons of its expensive failure to create a Catholic presence on television.
There’s also food for thought here as Catholics of both sexes ponder the meaning of John Paul the Great’s Catholic feminism. The most beloved figure in contemporary Catholicism was a woman — Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The most powerful and successful Catholic media mogul of our time is a woman — Mother Angelica. What does it mean for the future that neither Mother Teresa no Mother Angelica had much use for “Catholic feminism” as it’s usually defined, and that both were completely devoted to John Paul II’s understanding of the unique dignity and vocation of women?