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.