A nun in full

George Weigel

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?

Stay tuned.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.