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The Spiritual Legacy of Mother Angelica

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Bishop Barron calls her "The most watched and most effective Catholic evangelizer of the last fifty years" with the possible exception of John Paul II

Mother Angelica, one of the most significant figures in the post-conciliar Catholic Church in America, has died after a fourteen-year struggle with the after effects of a stroke. I can attest that, in “fashionable” Catholic circles during the eighties and nineties of the last century, it was almost de rigueur to make fun of Mother Angelica. She was a crude popularizer, an opponent of Vatican II, an arch-conservative, a culture-warrior, etc., etc. And yet while her critics have largely faded away, her impact and influence are incontestable. Against all odds and expectations, she created an evangelical vehicle without equal in the history of the Catholic Church. Starting from, quite literally, a garage in Alabama, EWTN now reaches 230 million homes in over 140 countries around the world. With the possible exception of John Paul II himself, she was the most watched and most effective Catholic evangelizer of the last fifty years.

Read Raymond Arroyo’s splendid biography in order to get the full story of how Rita Rizzo, born and raised in a tough neighborhood in Canton, Ohio, came in time to be a nun, a foundress, and a television personality. For the purposes of this brief article, I would like simply to draw attention to three areas of particular spiritual importance in the life of Mother Angelica: her trust in God’s providence, her keen sense of the supernatural quality of religion, and her conviction that suffering is of salvific value.

The accounts of the beginning of EWTN read like the stories of some of the great saintly founders of movements and orders within the Church. Mother had a blithe confidence that if God called her to do something, he would provide what was needed. Her right hand man, Deacon Bill Steltemeier, a lawyer and businessman who would prove indispensable in getting the operation of EWTN off the ground, came to her in the most remarkable way. While in Chicago for a convention, he saw a flyer advertising a speech at a local parish by a nun whom he did not know. For some reason, he felt compelled to attend. Despite typically horrific Chicago winter weather and though he had no real idea where he was going, he made it to the parish and caught the second half of the nun’s presentation. Just as she was finishing up, he heard a voice saying quietly but insistently, “until the day you die.” The nun, of course, was Mother Angelica. Deacon Bill interrupted his prosperous legal career, drove to Alabama, and presented himself to Mother, who calmly said, “I’ve been expecting you!” The voice, by the way, proved prophetic, for Deacon Bill died just a few years ago, having indeed served EWTN literally until his last day.

Some years later, Mother ordered a giant satellite dish in order dramatically to increase the reach of her network. When the device arrived, the driver of the truck demanded the money on the spot. Mother asked to be excused for a few minutes and went to her chapel to pray: “Lord, I thought you wanted this satellite thing; now give me the money I need!” As she went out to speak to the driver, one of her sisters ran up announcing, “There is a man on the phone who says he wants to give you a donation.” It was a gentlemen calling from a yacht in the Bahamas who said he suddenly had the inspiration to send Mother Angelica $600,000!

The second theme upon which I’d like to focus is her instinct for the supernatural dimension of Christianity. Now I realize that such an instinct might seem rather obvious, but in the immediately post-conciliar years there was indeed a tendency to naturalize the supernatural, to reduce Christianity to the works of social justice and the cultivation of psychological well-being. Mother knew that a de-supernaturalized Christianity would in short order lose its soul and, paradoxically, its relevance to the world. Accordingly, she brought to the fore prayer, liturgy, the sacraments, sacramentals, the saints, adoration of the Eucharist, spiritual warfare, etc. And as someone who worked in the seminary world for twenty years, I can testify that this is precisely what made her talks and programs attractive to a younger generation of Catholics, who found much of liberal Catholicism indistinguishable from secular political and self-help programs.

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