Deal W. Hudson
Published December 1, 19995
She walks so slowly on her crutches she seems fragile, an impression that doesn’t last for very long. Mother Angelica is made of something as tough as the steel she leans on. This Poor Clare nun from Ohio has single-handedly built a multimillion-dollar television and radio complex on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, and created one of the most successful, influential Catholic broadcasting networks in the world.
I had little idea what to expect when I arrived at EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) for my interview on Mother Angelica Live. From previous broadcasts I knew my host could be direct and acerbic on the subject of the Church. But I wasn’t prepared for the woman I met, especially her humor, savvy, subtlety, and penetrating insight into the spiritual life.
In the course of my new editorial duties at Crisis I have gone for advice to many top business executives. Mother Angelica could stand toe-to-toe with any of them. She possesses an incisiveness that makes one wish for perfect recall, because some of the best things she says are off-camera.
I complained during the interview about the preaching one typically hears at Masses in this country. Then, feeling awkward about the priests who might be listening to the broadcast, I asked her if I was being “too hard.” Her reply brought hearty laughter from everyone in the studio, and relief to me — “You can’t be too hard on this program!”
Later, in the studio’s kitchen where everyone gathers for good-byes, after Mother personally greets nearly everyone in the audience, we continued to talk about preaching. Mother talked to me about the Cure d’Ars, what a weak preacher he was, but how multitudes of people would come to his Masses and line up at his confessional. Instantly I knew why I had been uncomfortable with my comments about preaching: the problem with my criticism wasn’t its harshness, it was simply misplaced.
The sacramental worship of the Catholic Church mercifully removes the spotlight from the celebrant as a brilliant rhetorician or even a charismatic personality. It frees the celebrant to be precisely that, one who celebrates the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is one of the central reasons I was first drawn to the Church, and it took an encounter with Mother Angelica to remind me of it. Old habits, as they say, die hard.
Meeting Mother Angelica has that kind of effect on people. Spend an afternoon talking to the people who work with her and it is difficult not to be infected with a certain back-to-basics euphoria. From the remarkable president of EWTN Bill Steltemeier, through the producers, to the radio technician who gave me the tour of WEWN, their mountain-top radio station, everyone I met was cheerfully devoted to Mother and the cause of EWTN. From Ohio and New Jersey, and across the South and Southwest, they have come to work for Mother, all of them sharing her belief that “God will provide.”
Anyone who watched EWTN’s coverage of the pope’s visit to the U.S. or listened to it on WEWN will appreciate the network’s possibilities, including the 24-hour AM/FM that is soon to follow. EWTN’s reporters and commentators simply outclassed and outcovered everyone else. Plans are under way to televise the pope’s upcoming visit to South America. When I asked Bill Steltemeier about the cost of broadcasting all those hours from another continent, including the costs of translation, he told me story after story of launching projects well in advance of raising the necessary capital. The words “Mother says” are their only business plan.
It is no accident EWTN has sprung up and taken root in the South. Its tone, like its founder, is enthusiastic and evangelical; no attempt to be the urbane, detached cosmopolitan here — just two-fisted Catholic intelligence reminding people to take full advantage of the grace they have been given.
As I was getting ready to leave for the airport, I looked out the window of the Madonna House where I was staying to see one of the extern sisters, fully draped in her traditional habit, walking down this suburban Alabama street carrying a huge yellow gladiola. I couldn’t help but wonder if sights like these had become such a commonplace in this predominately Protestant neighborhood that the neighbors had stopped noticing them. I hope not.
I found in that image something that captured the core of Mother Angelica’s ministry: she has brought an old-style Catholicism to the heartland of America. Her viewers aren’t simply responding to the firmness of her pre-conciliar tone, which they surely appreciate, but they can also see the flower in her upraised hand. This flower represents the beauty and the joy of the Church she celebrates without apology.