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Mother Angelica’s Legacy: Speaking Christ’s Truth to Power

(Original image courtesy of EWTN)

Boldness should be the eleventh commandment.” – Mother Angelica

This week, the Catholic world celebrates the life and mourns the death of Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation — known to most simply as Mother Angelica. Among her various accomplishments, she is most heralded as the founder of and driving personality behind the Catholic media powerhouse known as the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).

As a public school teenager in the 1990s, I may have seemed like the last person who would have voluntarily tuned in to hear a little old Italian-American nun talk about religion. But my grandmother — a Methodist convert to Catholicism — spent many of her waking hours absorbing the information provided by the various thinkers and speakers EWTN had to offer in those days, Mother Angelica foremost among them. My parents couldn’t get EWTN at home, so when I’d visit my grandmother, we’d watch Mother together. She had a soft, kindly voice and a contagious sense of humor that belied her intense and fiery personality. It was clear that this unassuming nun knew what she was about; there was a deep and unyielding passion in her soul for Christ and His Church.

I wrote recently about the verbal assault she launched on the liberal American Church after Christ was portrayed by a woman at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 – an offense which I witnessed first-hand as an attendee. And while I disagree with her assessment that the documents of the Second Vatican Council were simply misinterpreted, I believe Mother Angelica got most of this completely right. She and her Poor Clares had not yet donned their more traditional habit, but the announcement of that change would be made in this very broadcast in response to the growing progressivism within the Church. If you’ve never seen it, there’s no better evidence that the soft, kindly voice I mentioned could sometimes be raised in righteous, defiant anger:

Here’s a summary of some of her most pointed commentary from the above clip:

It [having Jesus portrayed in the living stations by a woman]  was a statement, and I’m going to make a statement, also. Let me read a little bit more to you. The Denver Post, Saturday, August 14th: ‘Meanwhile, the Fountain Square Fools, a four-person troupe from Cincinnati acted out the events of each station. Jesus was portrayed by a woman – a fact some found ironic since the Catholic Church will not ordain women as priests.’ No, it’s not ironic. It’s blasphemous that you dare try to portray Jesus as a woman. You know, as Catholics we’ve been terribly quiet all these years… And all these years from the time they took out Our Lady to the time they took out the tabernacle to the time they took out stations to the time they took out all devotions to the time at this point they have changed our churches — they’ve closed them! — and now we’re not even allowed in many many…to even kneel when that awesome presence comes down into this one little host. Some lounge, some sit, some stand! I’m tired of your enneagrams, I’m tired of your witchcraft, I’m tired…I’m tired of being pushed in corners. I’m tired of your inclusive language that refuses to admit that the Son of God is a man! I’m tired of your tricks. I’m tired of your deceit, I’m tired of you constantly just making a crack, and the first thing you know there’s a hole, and all of us fall into it. No. This was deliberate. These were not a group of children deciding to do this. This is a group that was told what to do and how to do it. You dare portray Jesus as a woman under the guise of mime in the place where the Holy Father is, knowing what the Church teaches, knowing what he thinks and how he feels, you have the gall to do such a thing?! No. You made a statement. That was not accidental. And this is just as much a lie as the lies we got last night.

I’m so tired of you liberal Church in America! And everything you’ve ever done has gone in silence. Nothing, nothing you’ve done – from your witchcraft to your enneagrams to your centering prayer to all this ‘earth spirituality’ to replacing holy water with sand to destroying our churches and closing churches that are viable and ready to go…no, this is not an accident. We’ve swallowed this now for thirty years. I’m tired of it. We have swallowed enough of your idea of God! You have, really, no God, no dogma, no doctrine, and no authority, because the only authority in the Catholic Church is our Holy Father and the Magisterium, and you have disclaimed that. You don’t believe in the Eucharist, you don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception, you don’t believe in the Virgin Birth, you don’t believe in Mary’s power of intercession, you don’t believe in religious life, you don’t believe in being a spouse of Christ! You do believe in teaching to little children in the third grade sex education, you do believe in forcing centering prayer and forcing inclusive language upon us, and now you depict Jesus as a woman?! You’re sick!

As Mother Angelica sat there on television and hammered these issues head on, we witnessed a turning point in the post-conciliar era of the Church. To fail to remember that this was the reason for her success — her tenacity, her unwillingness to take things lying down, her unflagging courage when it came to speaking Christ’s unpopular truths to those in positions of ecclesiastical power — would be to fail to honor who she was and what she was truly about.

And we must also remember that Mother made enemies by taking such stands. Powerful enemies that cost us her voice even before her debilitating stroke. In his book, EWTN: A Network Gone Wrong, Christopher Ferrara tells a story many Catholics have to this day never heard about why Mother Angelica disappeared so suddenly from her own network:

While EWTN says the strokes have rendered Mother Angelica unable to appear on television, in truth she had already been driven from her position of control over the network she founded by an episcopal power play orchestrated with the assistance of a Vatican congregation.

It all began in November 1997 with Mother’s unforgettable televised denunciation of the infamous Cardinal Mahony, that celebrity prelate who is the very embodiment of post conciliar Modernism and decay in the Church. Mother rightly denounced Mahony’s “pastoral letter” on the Holy Eucharist as a Modernist obfuscation of the true doctrine of the Mass. Under pressure from Mahony’s friends in the Vatican apparatus, Mother made an on the air apology; but the “apology” was even more defiant than the original commentary. For nearly an hour Mother “served up a point by point critique of the pastoral letter,” demonstrating that Mahony had slighted and thus undermined the doctrine of transubstantiation. An infuriated Mahony filed a canonical complaint in Rome. Arroyo quotes one elderly curial Cardinal as admitting that “Mother Angelica has the guts to tell him [Mahony] what we do not.” Mahony’s canonical complaint ultimately went nowhere, but he had already begun to agitate the Vatican apparatus to take action against Mother. Arroyo quotes Mahony’s director of media relations as stating “The Cardinal wants the Holy See to do something about Mother Angelica’s whole attitude that she is not responsible to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops or to any of the individual bishops.”

Then Mother Angelica tangled with another liberal prelate, Bishop David Foley, the ordinary of her diocese in Alabama. Foley had no real authority over Mother’s apostolate, the Poor Clares of the Perpetual Adoration. Nevertheless, he insisted that in the new Shrine to the Blessed Sacrament Mother was building in Hanceville, Alabama, no Masses were to be said in the traditional “ad orientern” manner that is, facing the altar and God in an eastward direction, rather than facing the people. When Mother refused to knuckle under to this illegal demand, in October 1999 Foley issued a preposterous decree stating that Mass facing the altar (an unbroken tradition of the Church from her earliest days) was an “illicit innovation or sacrilege” and that anyone “guilty” of this “sacrilege” would be subject to “suspension or removal of faculties.” All Masses in his diocese, Foley declared, would “henceforth be celebrated at a freestanding altar and… the priest would face the people.”

In a courageous act of resistance to this abuse of power, Mother Angelica boycotted the dedication of the new Shrine in December 1999, presided over by none other than Foley himself, who celebrated Mass facing the people. Arroyo reports that a clearly humiliated Foley called Mother to the podium to say a few words, but “in silent protest” she remained with her nuns in the cloistered area behind the altar, refusing to serve as Foley’s prop. Clearly determined to get revenge, Foley went to the Vatican as the representative of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to demand action against Mother Angelica (no doubt with Mahony’s blessing). Foley, with the advice of Cardinal Medina, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, promulgated norms that banned any televised Mass facing East (i.e. the altar) in his diocese and requiring Mass facing the people. EWTN complied with these “norms,” even though they were as preposterous and illegal as Foley’s earlier decree, for Foley had no authority to ban the Church’s immemorial practice, on television or otherwise.

But the matter did not end there. Foley also induced the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life to send an Apostolic Visitor, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Alabama to investigate the entire EWTN operation. It quickly became apparent that the aim of the visitation (which took place in February-March 2000) was to establish that Mother Angelica’s order, the Poor Clares, owned EWTN’s assets, including the new Shrine, and not EWTN’s civil corporation board of directors, of which Mother was CEO with full veto power over the board’s decisions. If it could be established that Mother’s order owned the assets, then the whole EWTN enterprise could be subjected to ecclesiastical control, including the possible appointment of a “progressive” replacement for Mother Angelica herself.

In desperation, Mother made a prudential decision that in retrospect was a huge mistake: Fearing that Archbishop Gonzalez’s report to the Vatican would recommend an ecclesiastical takeover of her apostolate, Mother surrendered all control over EWTN to the lay people who run it today. At an emergency board meeting in March of 2000, she resigned as CEO of EWTN, relinquishing her veto power, and with it her control over EWTN’s affairs. At the same meeting EWTN’s board amended the corporate by laws to insure lay control and preclude any control in the future by a bishop, priest or religious. Thus, instead of continuing her direct resistance to liberal prelates, Mother Angelica thought she could defeat them by a strategic retreat.

One reviewer of Arroyo’s biography opines that “by resigning, Mother Angelica had defeated her enemies within the Church and entrusted her network to lay people who shared her orthodox views….”As we will see, however, Mother’s retreat was actually a complete rout. For it was precisely Mother’s “enemies within the Church” who had gained the victory by driving her from her position of control over EWTN, leaving the network entirely in the hands of lay people, many of them ex-Protestants, who did not have her traditional pre-Vatican II spiritual formation and old fashioned Catholic militancy. The nun Arroyo calls “the undisputed matriarch of Catholic communications” had been neutralized.

One might think, looking at EWTN today, that this wasn’t the worst possible decision. After all, according to it’s own data, EWTN is now the largest religious media network in the world, reaching over 250 million households in 140 countries, and generating tens of millions in revenues. And yet, I can’t say that I know a single serious Catholic who watches EWTN with any regularity. Further, very few people I know ever read anything in the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register (unless it bears byline of Edward Pentin, perhaps the only trustworthy English-language Catholic journalist in Rome). For all of its aesthetic upgrades and growing global reach, the ethos that once animated Mother Angelica’s original up-by-the-bootstraps DIY Catholic network seems nowhere to be found within its now technically superior trappings and mass appeal.

It is my belief that EWTN’s growth has come at a serious cost: they have traded the credibility that once came with Mother’s tenacity in sharing the “hard sayings” of Catholic teaching for a more general popularity. Though there are certainly exceptions, in large part, EWTN programming and news coverage has become so conciliatory and anodyne that it fails any longer to speak with its founder’s voice to the very ecclesiastical crisis against which she so passionately fought. Does it reach millions of Catholics today? Undoubtedly. But with what? Safe programming and platitudes? Where are the courageous denunciations of the idea of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, the general conduct of the Synod, or of those infamous prelates hand-chosen to run it? Where are the questions about the blasting of “earth spirituality” images on the facade of St. Peter’s on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (which she rightly accused liberals of not believing in), or the observation of “earth hour” as the Vatican shut off its lights on the feast of St. Joseph? Where are the firebrand denunciations of the Church’s plans to join Lutherans in the 500th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther’s diabolical revolt within the Church? Where are the poignant analyses of any of these or a hundred other such scandals currently rocking the Church today?

Do we honestly believe that Mother Angelica, despite her deep filial devotion to the office of the papacy, would have stood silent against these assaults on her beloved Catholic Faith as the network she founded now appears content to do?

The truth is, with the influence and reach that EWTN has, it could become, once again, a deeply profound voice in the fight for the soul of the Church. And while I will pray for the repose of the soul of Mother Angelica as she would no doubt want, I will also implore her intercession (in the event that she’s already reached her eternal reward) that this very thing will come to pass, even if it takes a miracle. Who, more than Mother herself, would wish to see the work she gave so much of her life to serve such a purpose?

What happened to Mother Angelica also proves once again that individuals alone can only do so much against such a deep affliction within the Mystical Body of Christ. We certainly have our roles to play, but we need the clergy — especially the bishops — by our side. I know very well that I could die in my sleep tonight, and just like that, the Church would have one less apostolate — out of so very few willing to take the risk — dedicated to this fight.

Mother Angelica was a Catholic media pioneer and a trailblazer who stood for Christ’s truth against all opposition — not just outside the Church, but in particular, from within. She made it possible for us to do what we do here at 1P5 every day, and she has been greatly missed in these years since both her illnesses and her enemies brought about her silence. It is more important than ever that we carry on her legacy, and remember her as one who wasn’t worried about making important people uncomfortable for the sake of the Catholicism that she loved so much.

Requiescat in Pace, Mother. May God abundantly reward you for your enormous service to Him, and to the faithful He so loves.

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