“Holiness is not for wimps, and the Cross isn’t negotiable, sweetheart. It’s a requirement,” the late Mother Angelica once told a caller to her TV show. Sometimes we need a reminder that we are called to greatness, and during this Easter season the Scriptures remind us that the Father calls each of us to boldly trust and follow him.
Catholic media outlets these past two weeks have been filled with testimonies about Mother Angelica, following her death on Easter Sunday. What Mother Angelica accomplished in founding EWTN is truly a story of radical trust in God. But there is a side of Mother’s story that is often not heard – the story of how God used her trust to transform a life of suffering into a path of sanctity.
Mother Angelica was born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio in 1923. When she was only six years-old, her parents divorced and she and her mother moved from place to place in search of food and shelter. “That’s when hell began,” Mother Angelica said in a 2001 interview with the National Catholic Register. Despite being shamed at her Catholic school for coming from a divorced family, she didn’t turn away from the faith. At one point, young Rita and her mother left the Catholic Church for nearly a decade after a cruel experience in the Confessional.
When she was a teenager, her faith grew immensely because of an encounter with a local woman known for holiness. Mother Angelica left that meeting with the charge to pray a novena to St. Therese, and when it was finished, the severe stomach pains she had been battling for much of her life were gone. Jesus took her trust, and turned her suffering into joy.
Years later, during her time as a young sister in the Poor Clares community, Mother was tasked with cleaning the floors of her convent with an electric scrubbing machine. No sooner had she started, then the machine went haywire, causing her to slip in the soapy mess and slam her back into a wall. Over the next two years her back injury got worse until she couldn’t walk and had to have surgery.
As she waited to undergo a surgery that had a 50/50 chance of allowing her to walk again, Mother Angelica promised God that if she walked again, then she would build a monastery in the South. The surgery was a success and Mother Angelica founded Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in 1961, in a part of Alabama where Catholics made up only two percent of the population.
Mother Angelica’s story follows a similar pattern that we see in the Gospel readings for these first Sundays in April. It is the pattern of the Resurrection, in which Jesus takes on our suffering, calls us to trust him, and transforms it into goodness.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, we hear about Jesus appearing to the disciples shortly after his Resurrection. They had locked themselves in a room out of fear of the Jews, but Jesus appeared to them and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathed the Holy Spirit on them and gave them the power to forgive sins. One week later, he returned and invited Thomas to believe, telling him to put his hand in his nail marks. Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!”
On those two occasions, Jesus gave the disciples peace, the power to forgive sins, and belief. Much like Mother Angelica’s story, he entered into their wounds of shame, betrayal and disbelief and called them to boldly trust in him.
There is no place we can go that our Lord and God has not gone before us, and there is no suffering so great that he cannot overcome it by the power of his love and presence.
What is our job? To show up. To bring him our meager offerings and wait, expectantly, as he transforms them into far more than we could have believed possible.
“We are all called to be great saints,” Mother Angelica said, “don’t miss the opportunity.”
In this Year of Mercy, may we all grow in our trust and love of Christ, so that we can boldly follow him in building up the Kingdom of God. Let us put our complete trust in Jesus and pray, “Jesus, I trust in you.”