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Monday, January 23, 2006

Love Bears Fruit: The Triumph of Mother Angelica

Tom Hoopes
Part 3 of 4

This is the third part of a four part series about Mother Angelica. For the rest of the article, click the following links for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4.

Signs and Blunders

In addition to the television and radio stations, EWTN also runs a small print shop. It still puts out the same pamphlets that Mother Angelica’s teaching ministry started with in the early 1970s. She calls them mini-books. Says one of the books, from 1973: “We use the talents we possess to the best of our ability and leave the results to God. We are at peace in the knowledge that he is pleased with our efforts and that his providence will take care of the fruit of those efforts.”

Mother had high hopes for her mini-books. “Give me 10 Jehovah’s Witness–type Catholics and I can change the world,” she said. “Every person should be a missionary. We need to get so excited about our faith that we want to share it with our neighbors. The books and mini-books are mustard seeds. Every housewife, every businessman can be a missionary. Drop a book, drop a leaflet wherever you go. You plant the seed and then the Spirit will take over.”

Back then, a sign in the shop echoed Mother’s core message: “The Master’s Print Shop. We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re getting good at it.”

Everywhere I went on the property, I found messages hanging on walls reminding me that God is in charge here.

“As a Penance Do Not Smoke on Monastery Property,” said one.

But the signs also recall the spirituality of Mother Angelica. One dedicates the gift shop to El Niño and the Sacred Heart. Over doors that lead outside were the scrawled initials of the Magi flanked by the four digits of the year the facilities were last blessed: “20+C+M+B+05.”

I had an opportunity to ask about Mother’s faith when I was brought to the library to meet Colin B. Donovan, vice president for theology. He reviews shows and makes sure they’re in conformity with Catholic teaching. He’s in charge of a department of six employees — three of whom do nothing but answer online questions about the Faith.

Do Mother Angelica’s personal devotions and spirituality shape the network? “Mother has always been clear that just because she has an interest in something, the network doesn’t need to share it,” replied the sober, scholarly Donovan. “We’ve never been obliged to pursue something just because Mother does.”

It’s a heartening answer — but not one that’s likely to mollify critics. And there have been plenty of critics.

A National Catholic Reporter piece acknowledged in 1997 that Catholics are largely uncatechized, then added a jab at the network: “EWTN fills that hole with the Baltimore Catechism, or rather their selective version of 1940s Catholicism, which they imagine will restore their lost world. At time of writing, a six-part series of interviews with Vienna Bishop Christoph Schönborn on the new Catechism was planned, perhaps, in their eyes, the best opportunity to put the modern theological toothpaste back in the tube.”

Another typical sneer can be found in a January Chicago Sun-Times book review. Dolores and Roger Flaherty take a moment out from reviewing a comic novel about a nun to sum up Mother Angelica as “the elderly Catholic nun who lectures teens on fornication and bishops on theology.” The Flahertys’ enthusiasm for teen sex is downright creepy, but their crack about the bishops hit a raw nerve at EWTN. When I brought it up in interviews I was told to “read the book.”

Indeed, Arroyo does an excellent job untangling the threads in the story of Mother Angelica’s friction with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops when they tried to start their own cable television network, and with Roger Cardinal Mahony over a 1997 pastoral letter that she said soft-pedaled Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.

Cardinal Mahony was tenacious in his desire to get Mother Angelica to take back what she said about the letter. But then, in the year 2000, he followed up his document on the Eucharist with one on the liturgy that called the priest shortage “one of the many fruits of Vatican II,” because it opened up new liturgical roles for lay people.

After that, it wasn’t just Mother Angelica critiquing him. Philadelphia Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua responded that the shortage was a “crisis of the modern world wounded by materialism, practical philosophical atheism, skepticism, subjectivism, individualism, hedonism, social injustice, war and attacks upon the dignity of the human person.”

Arroyo’s book does a great service by documenting the many collaborators Mother Angelica has had in the hierarchy — including longtime Birmingham bishop David E. Foley, who many know only for his unusual liturgical edicts banning the broadcasting of the ad orientam posture that Mother Angelica’s chapel had been using in its broadcasts.

Warsaw listed all of the ways EWTN has tried to help the US bishops. “There’s no question that EWTN and its mission have used the electronic media in a way that builds up the Church,” he said.

Mother Angelica felt the need to respond to the critics in her conversations with Arroyo. “I don’t want to be conservative and I don’t want to be liberal,” she told him. “I want to be Catholic. Now if that offends the liberals, tough. If it offends the ultraconservatives, tough. I can’t be influenced by any of them. I want to know what the Church teaches.”

  • 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.)

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