by Raymond Arroyo
Anyone who has surfed the television channels in the last ten years has passed over a grandmotherly woman in full religious habit - either laughing in a down-home way, speaking earnestly about the love of Jesus, or peddling piles of religious articles. The name of Mother Angelica is known to a wide swath of the American population, which is no mean feat for someone without an agent to keep a glossy visage strategically positioned in the magazine racks.
Now whether you love her, hate her, or are in different would be based on your view of the Jesus Christ and His Church - the love of which together form the backbone of her worldview, the reason for her work, and the object of her total fealty since 1945. Those who believe that the true Church was founded on the apostles, that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, and that the Magisterium is a vibrant and infallible guide to truth usually see Mother's mission in a straightforward way. They interpret her struggles as roadblocks allowed by God but stirred up by the Fallen One, her victories as God's sign of approval, and her personal suffering as her own Way of the Cross - a sign of privilege uniting her more deeply to her Spouse. On the other hand, those with another definition of "church" balk at the idea of a cloistered nun without visible oversight meddling in communications, catechesis, and the realm of the clergy. Who does she think she is? To whom is she accountable? Why can't she do things "by the book"?
Raymond Arroyo, well-known to the viewers of the Eternal Word Television Network paints a thorough and unflinching portrait of this woman, born Rita Rizzo in Canton, Ohio in 1923. Although the reader may begin by being distracted by the author's own remarkable personality and relationship to the story, his gift of storytelling quickly allows him to recede into the background and for the captivating tale to unfold. There was nothing romantic about her childhood, with its backdrop of poverty, abandonment by her father, her chronic illness, and her dingy Italian ghetto. Her remaining parent was her mother, Mae - fragile, depressed, suicidal, and utterly dependent on Rita for so many things.
Arroyo allows the poignant saga to breathe forth - through ordinary life, struggles, insults, brokenness, and shards of god-light at every turn. There are two distinct treasures that flow from these pages. First, one is privy to the enormous transformation in this woman that took place over the decades; and secondly, one can see how God can work miracles with any willing instrument. To look at the former, one must consider the steady, consistent steps taken over the months, the years, and the decades. The Rizzo's were not a believing pair - yet they found deep faith. They never had a traditional home, yet Mother became one of the most visible advocates of Pope John Paul II's writings on the family. Mother joined a convent and was convinced for years that it needed innovations to add relevance, yet decades later she would reject those very notions and reintroduce the most time-honoured traditions as a source of theological stability.
To look at the second angle, the magnificence of God in this story, one is brought to Our Lady's Magnificat: "The Almighty has done great things for me ... He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly." Young Rita - already infirm in her youth - suffers more physical setbacks over the course of her life. Deprived of a father's love, maternal affection, and any semblance of good health, God nourishes her soul with Divine Love while allowing her physical capacity to come and go. She experiences miracles of healing, of meeting exorbitant financial needs, and of allowing souls to be touched through her apostolate. For her part, she placed no limits on God, repeatedly seeing just what He could do - especially in the creation of EWTN despite her tremendous inadequacies.
The reader is winded just following the afflictions, the injuries, the physical deterioration, and the personal attacks, and yet amidst them witnesses the growth of Mother's little apostolate into the worldwide communications network, defying both business protocols and human logic. Most painful is the bitter acrimony between the fiery nun - in love with Christ and dedicated to spreading the Gospel - and her own bishops who could not fathom such audacity and "narrowness."
One easily calls to mind the greatest of saints - Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila - who stepped outside the normal confines of their vocation to be the prophets God called at critical historical junctures, and it is in this term "prophet" that the disparate definitions of the Church (offered at the outset) must be weighed. Surely she was without oversight, surely she spoke her mind - wryly, but even recklessly at times, and surely she undertook a mission directed by a Voice reserved for her alone. Whatever legitimate concerns the bishops may have had were belied by a rancor and vindictiveness, which makes it nearly impossible for the reader to imagine an authentic desire on their part to share her endeavor. Additionally, according to this well-documented account, her own shepherds revealed a remarkable insipidness towards guarding the deposit of faith, ultimately perceiving the network as more of a threat than a gift. Frustrated, wounded, and even heartsick at times, Mother Angelica remained faithful to her mission and filled a gaping spiritual void with EWTN's solid programming and access to the Universal Church.
As we idly flip the remote, past the network built on faith, determination, and miracles, it is so easy to take it for granted. With hundreds of stations, why shouldn't there be one dedicated sharing to the Catholic faith? How big a deal is it, really? Now we know the price Mother Angelica paid for that spot - it was only every ounce of strength since she took her vows, a total oblation of one saucy bride for the Bridegroom she cherished, and Who accepted the gift of both EWTN and Rita Rizzo on the altar of sacrifice.