In March 1985, my wife and I attended an Easter Seals breakfast at the Continental Regency in downtown Peoria. The featured speaker was a 61-year-old cloistered Franciscan nun by the name of Mother Mary Angelica.
At that time, Mother Angelica was well-known in the Catholic community. She had started the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in 1981 with an investment of $200. The original broadcasts were from a makeshift studio that was set up in a garage in Irondale, Alabama. Within four years, she was able to raise the funds to build a $2.8 million satellite communications network.
The Mother Angelica we saw at that breakfast was the same simple, humble woman we were accustomed to seeing on television. She was unassuming and down-to-earth. She mesmerized the crowd with her stories, sense of humor, and wisdom.
She talked about the “specialness” of people who are handicapped and reminded us that in Heaven there are no handicaps — only rewards for those of us who are faithful to God. She told us about her heart condition and the back injury that continued to cause her severe pain. Because of the injury, she was unable to walk without using crutches and wearing a brace that ran from the middle of her back to the sole of her foot.
She emphasized the importance of showing gratitude to God for all our gifts, including our handicaps. She said that the gift of her handicap caused her to turn to God several times during each day and pray, “Help me, just this day. Help me, just this hour, just this moment.” She told us what she wanted to do when she entered into God’s Kingdom: “The first thing I want to do is run through the halls.”
While she gave credit to God for all her accomplishments, she admitted that it was her goal “to do the ridiculous” in a spirit of humility, obedience, and trust. Her challenge to us was, “If I can do it, you can do it.”
In 1995, Time magazine called Mother Angelica “an improbable superstar of religious broadcasting and arguably the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America.” In reality, in addition to being the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America, she was also the most influential Roman Catholic person in America.
Mother Angelica was born Rita Antoinette Rizzo on April 20, 1923. She was an only child who was raised by a mother who suffered from chronic depression. Her father abandoned the family when she was two years old. While Mother Angelica was growing up, she lived in a one-room apartment with her mother and often ate only crackers and salami for her meals.
As a young girl, she refused to return to the Catholic school she was enrolled in after a nun mocked her for coming from a divorced family. After that incident, she developed a deep hatred for nuns, the church, and God. She was later quoted as saying that the nuns at the grade school she attended were “the meanest people on God’s earth.”
After graduating from high school, Mother Angelica became very ill. At the suggestion of some neighbors, she visited a local mystic, where she experienced a physical healing and a renewal of her faith. At the age of 21, she joined the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland, Ohio.
Her inspiration for EWTN came to her when she visited a small television studio in Chicago. In an interview with The New York Times in 1989, she described her experience: “I walked in, and it was just a little studio, and I remember standing in the doorway and thinking, ‘It doesn’t take much to reach the masses.’ I just stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Lord, I’ve got to have one of these.’”
By the time she retired in 2001, EWTN had become a 24-hour Catholic programming network that reached more than 100 million homes in the United States, South America, Africa, and Europe. She was forced to retire in December of that year because she had suffered a series of debilitating strokes, the last of which occurred on December 24, 2001. That stroke left her with slurred speech, some unresponsive facial muscles, and the need to wear an eye patch over one of her eyes because she was unable to close her eyelid.
Mother Angelica’s daily ritual included Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and four hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. She was a fierce defender of the Eucharist; so much so that in 1997 she publicly criticized Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles for his proposed changes to the Sacrament of Holy Communion — changes that she believed were contrary to Catholic doctrine.
Cardinal Mahony demanded an apology and a retraction, and later petitioned Rome to discipline Mother Angelica for what he considered to be a violation of canon law. At that time, the National Catholic Reporter noted: “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. It goes beyond her criticism of the Cardinal — it’s about how the network operates and to whom it is accountable.”
Although several other bishops were in agreement with Cardinal Mahony’s complaints, the committees that considered the cardinal’s petition eventually determined that no action needed to be taken against Mother Angelica.
After the controversy was over, the then-Pope, John Paul II, was quoted as saying, “Mother Angelica — she is a very strong woman.” He then personally sent her a monstrance as a gift to show his support for everything she had done for the Catholic church.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI awarded Mother Angelica the Cross of Honor for distinguished service, the highest award anyone other than an ordained priest can receive from a pope.
On Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, at the age of 92, Mother Mary Angelica entered into the Kingdom of God. At the time of her death, EWTN was being watched in more than 240 million homes in over 140 countries around the world.
How was this simple woman with only a high school education able to accomplish so much in so little time? I believe that her inspiration and power came directly from her best friend and spouse, Jesus Christ. She had a deep and abiding love for Him. Her trust in His divine providence was unshakable. The depth of her relationship with Him grew daily because of her insistence that they spend at least four hours together every day.
It is comforting to know that Mother Angelica is now able to do what she looked forward to doing in the afterlife: running through the halls of the Kingdom of God without her brace and crutches. May she rest in peace.