This is the first part of a four part series about Mother Angelica.
Mark Belnick was a 50-year-old Wall Street lawyer living in wealthy Westchester County, New York, when Mother Angelica reached him in 1997.
Belnick was so high up at Tyco International that when the courts began their aggressive targeting of corporate crime in recent years, he almost got swept up in their nets — while top executives of the company went to jail, he was acquitted by a jury of any wrongdoing.
One morning he hooked up a cable television in front of his treadmill and was clicking through the channels when he happened upon EWTN — the Eternal World Television Network, founded by Mother Angelica.
“I stopped clicking,” he said.
He became enamored with EWTN. “I would go on the treadmill in the morning and then again after supper,” he told the National Catholic Register. “I could have watched EWTN all day. I was eager to learn more and more.”
He was Jewish when he plugged that television in. He’s Catholic now.
Heather Gaitley was 22, living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, when Mother Angelica reached her in 1993. She had hit a low point and wanted to pull away from the destruction of the bohemian lifestyle she was immersed in.
So she watched EWTN. “I literally would watch it and would just be blown away because it was this faith that I knew I wanted but which I had no knowledge or practical experience of. When I was in it, I wasn’t catechized.” Now, she couldn’t learn fast enough. “I watched Mother Angelica probably all day sometimes,” she said.
Everyone at EWTN has a favorite story. There was the guy who clicked onto EWTN because a pornography network shared the same channel number. When he saw full habits instead of flesh, he tried to change the channel. For some reason, he couldn’t. So he watched. Cancer patients, Playboy bunnies, secret Christians in Muslim countries who watch online — stacks of their stories come in to EWTN each day.
Rhoda the Stigmatist
I had many of these stories typed out and stuffed in my bag as I got on the airplane to travel to EWTN’s Irondale, Alabama, studios. I had spent weeks circling around Mother Angelica’s story.
EWTN is everywhere in the Catholic press as the network looks forward to its August 15, 2006, 25th anniversary. The issue of Faith & Family magazine I was finishing features Mother Angelica on the cover. Tim Drake at the National Catholic Register was interviewing Raymond Arroyo about his new book, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles.
All the same, before I worked on this story, I can’t honestly say I was a fan of Mother Angelica. Her style of piety didn’t quite suit my taste, I thought, and I wondered at her reputation for skirting Church authority.
But on the plane, I began to read Arroyo’s book, skimming it to get enough information to do my interviews. I ended up so engrossed in the story of Rita Rizzo’s rise from an immigrant neighborhood in Ohio to Catholic superstardom in Alabama that I hardly noticed the flying time from Hartford to Charlotte to Birmingham.
The ingredients of her life seem unlikely to produce a Catholic television mogul — or a committed Catholic of any kind, for that matter. Rita was abandoned by her father as an infant and had to be the adult in the poverty-stricken life she shared with her bitter and sometimes hysterical mother. Rita’s Catholic relatives didn’t exactly rally to her mother’s aid when her father left, and she had too many cold encounters with nuns in school who were rude to her because she was the child of divorce (“I hated them,” she told Arroyo).
Fending for herself and caring for her mother, Rita grew up to become the primary breadwinner of her truncated family — only to be struck with a stomach ailment that left her in severe pain and in bed much of the time. If she thought of God at all, it was with resentment.
But her life took a dramatic turn when she met up with a stigmatist named Rhoda Wise who lived near the city dump. Wise led a doubting Rita in a novena to the Little Flower. At the end of the seven days of prayer, her stomach ailment disappeared. Wise became her tutor in Catholicism. The text for her lessons: Mary Agreda’s The Mystical City of God.
Thus, the future Mother Angelica informed her faith by reading private revelations, nourished it with novenas and chaplets, and found her inspiration in painted statues and holy cards. It’s a style of Catholicism that, for all its seeming gaudiness, is resilient and imaginative. It’s a faith that is unsurprised by both the miraculous on the one hand and the depths of man’s evil on the other. And it was a perfect fit with the life of Rita Rizzo. She met Christ through this spirituality, fell passionately in love with Him (truly — read the book), and hasn’t left His side since.
It has been hard, though. Her convent experiences sound like the script of The Nun’s Story, the Fred Zinnemann film about the penances and humiliations that lead a young nun to repress her personality, then free herself only by escaping.
But at the point in the story when a nervous, exhausted Audrey Hepburn leaves through the open back door of her convent and disappears into a dawning morning, Sister Angelica blossomed inside the convent walls. She found she had a talent for directing construction projects, an entrepreneurial penchant for fundraising, and a gift for teaching often compared to that of Fulton Sheen.
These are the talents that the former Rita Rizzo gave to God, and that He used to build a media empire.
“I am convinced God is looking for dodoes,” she once told Protestant televangelist Jim Bakker. “He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can’t be done, so they don’t do it. But a dodo doesn’t know it can’t be done. God uses dodoes: people who are willing to look ridiculous so God can do the miraculous.”
- Tom Hoopes is executive editor of the National Catholic Register, and, with his wife April, editorial director of Faith & Family magazine.
(This article is courtesy of Crisis Magazine. This data file is the sole property of of the copyright holder, Crisis Magazine.)