Mother CableRead Now
I would be remiss if I did not offer some thoughts on the death of Mother Angelica, founder of EWTN, the first satellite Catholic television network. I have to confess that Mother was not a regular staple of my spiritual input, but she evidently reached millions and continued to do so even after a debilitating stroke. The network and its ancillary publishing and marketing interests continued her work and mission, though there are voices from the far right that claim the network has become more “modernist” since her departure from leadership, a claim I rather doubt.
I have to smile when I think back to the origins of EWTN in 1981. At some point in history Mother Angelica must have met Ted Turner, the flamboyant and controversial owner of the first satellite superstation, WTBS or Channel 17 from Atlanta (1976), not so far from Mother’s Monastery in Alabama. For she and Turner, along with WGN in Chicago (1978) and HBO, were true communications pioneers of space age networking, albeit they certainly addressed different audiences. WTBS, it may be remembered, broadcast all of the Atlanta Braves baseball games across the United States from the late 1970’s, marketing the franchise as “America’s Team.” Mother Angelica in many ways made Catholicism—or at least certainly her vision of it—America’s religion.
She was born Rita Rizzo, and her life is worthy of the reading as a good biography, of which there are several. My recommendation is Raymond Arroyo’s Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. Her history is filled with illness, family trial, and emotional distress even before entering the convent. Early on, I came to the conclusion that Mother’s authoritarian and at times, anti-intellectual brand of traditional spirituality was not a positive influence in my own life, but I have great respect for what she accomplished, and in a few instances I found that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
For all of her rants against feminists, Mother Angelica was possibly the most effective and visual Catholic feminist in the public eye. Much of her life was devoted to sustained and at times acrimonious battles with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and individual bishops over a variety of matters. I can’t say as I blame her. In reviewing the account of her efforts to establish her Alabama community in the late 1950’s, we get a good look at the ecclesiastical chauvinism of local bishops and the humiliating powerlessness of religious women so prevalent at the time—and long afterward.
Her bigger issues with bishops came two decades later when EWTN began to gain traction as a force to be reckoned with in the American Church. The national bishops’ conference was not unaware of the potential of satellite television, though they came to better awareness a little late in the game when satellite rates and accessibility were more difficult obstacles. I can recall NCCB (now USCCB) meetings in the 1980’s about a national Catholic network. The initial foray of the NCCB into satellite TV production were one hour seminars beamed to chanceries where interested parties could gather and watch. EWTN by contrast was a 24-hour Catholic network with more piety, liturgy, and personal engagement (primarily with Mother, but other fine TV clergy and professionals as well), and most importantly, available to most cable subscribers in the convenience and privacy of the home.
Clearly EWTN was light years ahead of any national broadcasting from the NCCB and later the USCCB, and efforts to establish a “bishops network,” so to speak, were privately and quietly shelved. The bishops, with some notable exceptions, resented the fact that EWTN was seen as TV’s authoritative Catholic presence and felt that their teaching authority was de facto being diminished. If my memory serves correctly, there was talk—possibly even an offer—to buy EWTN and reconstitute it under a new board of bishops. Mother Angelica had little interest in this, in part because she blamed the bishops for the “liberalizing tendencies” in the U.S. Church, which she viewed as a grave threat to the Faith. Her insistence on editorial control was strong.
Possibly her most famous and potentially dangerous encounter with high Church authorities involved a televised criticism in 1997 of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. Mother accused Mahony on air of heretical teachings on the Eucharist. She may not have been aware that Mahony was then in the Vatican for an international meeting, and from the steps of St. Peter’s he demanded a public apology. Mother provided one, and then launched into a criticism of Mahony on another matter. The Mahony affair led to a Vatican investigation of Mother Angelica, but she was exonerated in 2001, though for reasons of age and health she began to step back from her intensive managerial style at that point.
I doubt that, aside from the inconvenience and pettiness of the whole thing, very few Catholics worried about the outcome of any Vatican investigation. Certainly one of the most important factors in the success of Mother Angelica and EWTN was that Mother’s entire TV career was concurrent with the papacy of Pope John Paul II. Young Karol Wojtyla was an actor, among other things, and wrote at least one play I am aware of. There is no way he was ignorant of America’s television nun and the mission and theology of EWTN, which jelled with his own pastoral efforts of consolidating Catholic truth after the Vatican II experimentations. I cannot imagine his signing off on any punitive action against Mother or the EWTN ministry.
Mother Angelica was too ill to publicly comment on the election of Pope Francis and his remarkable papacy to date. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise, as Mother’s brand of ecclesiology would have had severe difficulty absorbing the pastoral reforms of Francis, who yesterday declared his belief that Mother had gone to heaven. In her prime I fear she might have found him too much to accept, but now that is only conjecture. As with many things in Mother’s life, the timing was just right…just like cable’s coming of age.
I am going to take a pass today on entering a full post, and tend to piles of my own paperwork today. With some luck, I may be able to actually see the wood top of my desk by sunset. Except for some blog entries, the last five days have preoccupied me with something I never saw coming.
Last week at this time I got a news update from the New York Times to the effect that three former Franciscan provincials or general superiors had been indicted in Pennsylvania for assignment of a known pedophile friar. This was not the branch of the Franciscan Order that I belonged to for 25 years, but all the same one of the indicted former provincials is a friend of mine, as is the present-day provincial, and over the last decade or so my old friend has pastored up the road not far from me, and I occasionally attend Mass in the Franciscan ambiance of that parish. The news was devastating to me, and I read the full grand jury report, which made me feel worse, so I sent my condolences and basically hoped for the best.
Then, on Thursday, I was asked to go to the parish to provide support for the staff and parishioners. It would be impossible to even summarize the range of emotions for all of us over that several day stretch of the weekend, which included of course the observance of Palm Sunday and the arrival of the new pastor, as well as formal notifications of the change and the removal of the sitting pastor of a decade.
If you work with the Church long enough, you will encounter about every kind of pastoral situation conceivable. And while we do our best to be prepared for every imaginable church emergency--from child abuse to hurricanes to parish closings--nothing ever unfolds in predictable fashion. I told a group of parish ministers last weekend that this was the moment when all their training and all their innate skills and all their theological studies would be put to the test, and that as they processed through the weekend they should proceed by their own best lights, which indeed they seemed to do quite well.
The Holy Spirit does not let us down. I received a full-face reminder of this fact way back in the 1970's when, as a young college chaplain, I received a call from a sheriff's office downstate. There had been a family massacre--and the only surviving member of the family was safely studying for his exams in the college dorm down the hall from my apartment. I was asked to notify him and drive him to his home town where we would meet the police and go through the crime scene. Later I would preach the homily for the family funeral. But at the end of that first day I was amazed by the composure of the student and the way he immediately took charge, as sole survivor, of a dizzying array of decisions that needed determination. I was proud of him, and late that night I left the 'community compound" to check into a Holiday Inn around midnight. Upon check-in, I realized that, unlike the student, in my haste I had forgotten to pack a bag. God saves his help for those who really it, I concluded.
I arranged to meet Joe in his office first, and upon arrival I saw that his desk was cleared and the man was ready to engage in prolonged and thoughtful discussion about his ministry of faith formation and the bigger picture of catechetics in the Church. I have worked in Joe’s parishes twice in the past providing diocesan catechist training for teachers in his regions, so we were not unknown quantities to each other prior to this interval. We had never had a chance to kick back and discuss our ministries, however.
I do not have the parish’s demographics, in part because I forgot to ask for them. The parish’s website in general confirms public records about his parish’s city, particularly that the population is 62% white: there are four English and one Spanish Masses on the weekend; there are two priests assigned to the parish, one Anglo and one Hispanic. The most recent bulletin indicates the previous week’s collection tally of $20,000. It is a little difficult to extrapolate this number over a whole year’s parish income due to our Florida phenomenon of “snowbirds” or winter residents. January is often a “flush” month for many parish coffers. There are two permanent deacons and ten paid lay employees listed in the bulletin. Joe is the sole staff member identified by name with faith formation, but there is also a youth minister. I attended Mass at this parish in the fall, and the Saturday evening liturgy was a worthy communal event.
The parish does have a Catholic school—I attended its dedication about thirty years ago. Enrollment figures are not available on the school’s website—from what I hear from informal sources, enrollment is in the neighborhood of 300--but tuition for a child of an active parish family is $5350/annually. In situations where a parish operates a school and a religious education program, I brace myself for stress. But Joe mentioned nothing about such problems in his work; in fact, his office is located in the main school building near the faculty lounge. Speaking practically and symbolically, this is probably a good arrangement. I failed to ask if there was coordination of religious instruction.
Joe has earned a bachelor’s degree in education (with a state teaching certification, as I understand it) and a master’s degree in theology from a fully accredited Catholic graduate school. This is an impressive resume for our diocese—and probably most others. It is also an excellent educational resume for religious formation in general—and I chided him a bit good-naturedly about going on into diocesan administration. (We presently have an opening.) However, Joe waved me off and said he much prefers parish life. All the same, he conceded that as the father of a growing family years ago he might have liked to go further with his education when he was younger, but both time and money were big league factors to contend with.
Joe is certainly an intellectual. He gave me samples of handouts on Christology, Church History and heresies that reflect intense familiarity with his theological roots. Later, over lunch, I lamented the rather shallow curriculums of some religious education programs I have seen over the years. Joe leaned over the table and replied, “But isn’t it really about sharing the Faith at the end of the day?” I would like to debate him further on this at a future time, but he is right. Aquinas would have called his model of education formation of the reason and the will.
Joe began his religious formation career in a large diocese in the Midwest United States, where he was evidently quite successful at both the parish and regional level. In 2004 he coauthored a description of a mentoring program that he and colleagues developed for new religious education personnel in his diocese. It is thorough and ambitious, and one can only hope that at least a portion of it is still in use today. In truth, this model has merit for all religious educators, but I will return to catechist formation further in the interview.
I am not certain exactly when Joe relocated to Central Florida. He raised the point that over the years he has seen considerable decline in compensation and benefits in church work generally. As we were discussing his work history, he revealed to me that in another work site a few years ago, he had been subjected to what I would have defined as workplace harassment, or at the very least, inappropriate micromanaging on the part of his then-pastor which crippled Joe’s ability to maintain his programs in a consistent and professional manner. This episode of his life was a personally wounding experience, and he asked my opinion if even now it would do some good to talk to the human resources director of the diocese.
I have dealt with other church ministers in similar situations, and I regret that unless there is major violation of federal labor regulations or an actual criminal act committed against an employee, there is very little to be done. I told him that if he thought there was therapeutic benefit for him to be gained by such a meeting, it was certainly his right to do so. However, I had to be candid that I expected very little, if any, structural outcome. In the present circumstances of the priest shortage, pastors enjoy near immunity. I did mention that some insurance policies would probably cover a professional consultation and follow up with a therapist. (This is good to remember: if you are on a diocesan contract health plan, which is just about always 50 or more employees, the policy falls under mental health parity requirements. Work stress is worthy of such coverage; in some plans it is called EAP or Employee Assistance Programs and there is no copay.)
(I was later able to uncover a document by the Archdiocese of Toronto Department of Schools, The Respectful Workplace, the only site I could find that seemed to intelligently address Joe’s question regarding events of some time ago.)
This led us to another topic, the isolation of religious formation professionals, a multi-tiered issue for Joe. Locally, there are occasional deanery-wide gatherings in his locale. I have the impression that these take place through the initiative of another faith formation director, because there are deaneries where no meetings take place at all. Joe admitted that many of the meetings he attends are rather unproductive, highlighted by discontent and lack of direction from the diocesan office, which has a distinct abhorrence to “boots on the ground,” due in part to serious understaffing. Joe added that the signals from the diocese seem to put the responsibility for catechist training back on the local directors like himself. Joe indicated that in the best of all worlds he would love to train his parish catechists in the fifteen or so areas of competence, and I have no doubt that he would do it well. But he added that he has about 60 catechists at various levels of progress through the diocesan cursus.
Joe had hosted a diocesan catechist training in his home parish a few months ago. I was the instructor, and we shared a sardonic laugh over the fact that of his sixty catechists, all of three registered and attended. As I remember, that program was attended by nearly all Catholic school teachers. Joe was a bit embarrassed about the turnout, but he, like so many of his colleagues in our diocese, feels a great sympathy for the investment of time he is already asking of his catechists. For all my ranting and raving about the importance of catechist training, there is much to be said for Joe’s concern. The great majority of catechists, of course, have families. It is an issue about which I have given a lot of thought. I ran by him the idea of a year’s educational/religious/pedagogical formation of potential catechists before they even enter a classroom, but in the present structure of things that wine has not yet reached its time.
We returned to the issue of isolation. Joe has a significant commute: 90 miles each way. As is very common nowadays, the position of “faith formation director” is a catch-all for all sorts of responsibilities requiring time, preparation, and organization. (Privately, I think this is one of the costs of dropping the DRE moniker; the job description of a faith formation director is as pliable as warm taffy.) I asked Joe if there was on paper a precise description of his duties. To be honest, I can’t quite recall his answer, but given his penchant for documentation, I believe that if he had one, he would have given me a copy. He did say that he negotiated very carefully his hours and days on the parish plant, not surprising given his 180-mile commute.
With the pressures on his time, Joe does not have a lot of time for reading and the other enrichments necessary to a man in his position. As we talked longer through lunch, he said to me, “I need to do this more often.” What I understood him to mean was the time to sit and talk about his ministry and his faith. I was very sympathetic and admitted that I myself would like to connect with a spiritual director, but this is much easier said than done. A good spiritual director—one who understands the Church’s rich tradition of conversation with God, the psychological interplay of an individual’s unique characteristics and needs, and the faith dimension of a minister’s work—is hard to come by. Justice demands that at least the offer of compensation be made for the time involved. That said, Joe seems determined to follow up in this direction.
After several hours and a change of waiter’s’ shifts, it was time for us to part. As we crossed the parking lot, Joe reiterated, “I need to do this again.” Truth be told, I think he will.
All interviewees are given an opportunity to review the text and make additions or correct or remove errors before I post to the Catechist Café blogsite.