When Mother Angelica died on Easter Sunday she left behind a 24-hour cable television channel reaching 250 million households in 144 countries; radio, internet and news services; and an image of sturdy Catholicism that will not quickly fade. Though she had stopped doing live broadcasts in 2001 after a series of strokes, replays of her talks and broadcasts of her reciting the Rosary with her contemplative community meant she remained the spiritual anchor of the Eternal Word Television Network she began in her monastery’s garage back in 1981.
By 1995 EWTN was receiving $12 million in donations and Mother Angelica was, in the words of Time magazine (quoted this week by the New York Times), “an improbable superstar of religious broadcasting and arguably the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America”.
It is a description which invites comparison with that other television phenomenon, Oprah Winfrey, whose daily talk show had an estimated 48 million viewers a week in the United States and an unknown number of viewers in 149 other countries when it finished in 2011. Today Oprah’s OWN channel is available to 82 million pay television households in the US.
Though Oprah’s audience was very different from Mother Angelica’s, they had something in common: they both struck a deep chord with the despised hoi polloi – low-brow Americans in one case, traditional Catholics in the other.
Mother Angelica was a comfort to those confused and appalled by sudden (and often ill-advised) changes in Church life following the Second Vatican Council, and the scourge of liberals driving these changes. Like a latter-day Catherine of Siena – though with considerably less subtlety – she ticked off the odd bishop who seemed to be erring; fortunately, she lived in a time when there was no need to admonish the pope, as Catherine did to Gregory XI.
There’s a bit of the Donald Trump story in her success: the intelligentsia are dismayed that such people have so many followers, and can’t work it out. Republican activists have denied that they know anyone who supports Trump, and one can imagine conversations in certain Catholic circles going the same way: “Mother Angelica? Nah, don’t know anyone who watches her show.”
It’s possible that many Trump supporters are just being cagey, given the kind of reaction they are likely to get if they admit to finding such a figure of ridicule and moral censure somehow appealing. As the months go by, however, it is becoming clearer that he has touched a nerve among the ordinary folks of “middle America” who have become alienated by political agendas that no longer serve their interests.
Mother Angelica’s followers — never coy about their devotion to her and EWTN – are also just a big bunch of real people who, in this case, have been lucky enough to find a far more positive and sympathetic figure than Donald Trump to adopt as their anchor in choppy ideological seas. And, anyway, it’s not really about her; despite the church polemics she was sometimes involved in, her purpose was always a spiritual one – to put people in touch with the love and mercy of God and the practice of their faith.
There is little doubt that Mother Angelica’s conversations with God and her viewers brought many lapsed Catholics back to church, and evangelised others for the first time. One dramatic success story concerns a gay man who came across her by accident while flipping channels and who subsequently testified on film to her role in his return to practising the Catholic faith.
In the documentary film, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Paul Darrow tells how he entered the gay scene at 15, pursued a career as a model in New York and over a number of years led an extremely promiscuous life. Mary Rezac of Catholic News Agency (an EWTN brand) takes up the narrative:
But after the AIDS epidemic claimed around 90 percent of his friends, a disease he himself narrowly and miraculously escaped, Darrow decided to move to San Francisco for a fresh start. He met his partner, Jeff, there and they moved to a cabin in Sonoma County.
It was in their shared home that Darrow accidentally discovered a one-eyed, straight-talking “pirate nun” wearing an eye-patch who would change his life forever.
“It was so strange that I said ‘Jeff Jeff come in here! You gotta see this!’” he said, pointing to the image on the T.V.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, it was Mother Angelica on EWTN. She had just had a stroke, which pulled the left side of her face into a slump and required her to wear a black eye patch over one eye.
“So (Jeff) comes in and I’m laughing mockingly at this nun with a patch over her eye, a distorted face…and a complete old fashioned habit,” Darrow said. “We both mocked her and laughed at her, you know, ‘Gosh these crazy Christians.’”
Jeff left the room and Darrow was about to change the channel, when Mother Angelica “said something so intelligent, so real, and so honest, that it really struck me,” he said.
“You see God created you and I to be happy in this life and the next,” Mother Angelica said through slumped lips, her good eye still twinkling behind her glasses.
“He cares for you. He watches your every move. There’s no one that loves you can do that.”
Darrow became a secret Mother Angelica fan and it led him to Confession, membership of Courage, and a sincere effort to live the call to chastity. “She really had…a huge influence on my life,” he says in the film.
Church leaders are always wondering how they can use the media more effectively to bring the Gospel to its own lost sheep and even to the wolves. Mother Angelica provides one clear answer. Just put one individual on the screen who is utterly convinced of the truth of her faith, who loves God and wants everyone to know His love – and then watch for the hoi polloi to turn up at the Church door.
Conviction, care for the true good of others — there is a message in Mother Angelica’s life for politicians too.
May she rest in peace.