Mother Angelica, founder of the Eternal Word Television Network, is pictured in a 1992 photo. She died March 27 at the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration monastery in Hanceville, Ala. She was 92. CNS files

Mother Angelica was called to greatness

By 
  • March 31, 2016

The death of Mother Mary Angelica, the American Poor Clare who founded EWTN, has produced much commentary puzzling over an apparent contradiction. An orthodox and traditional nun was at the same time an entrepreneurial pioneer in Catholic television and did not blanch from charting a path independent of Catholic bishops. How could this be? She had conservative ideas but seemed to operate like a liberal.

Mother Angelica was just Catholic, and in fact, very traditional in theological orthodoxy, Catholic sacramental and devotional practice, and in apostolic creativity and boldness. The last is in fact a traditional role for religious women, even if — or especially when — it puts them at odds with bishops. Even in the moments when Mother Angelica’s passion provoked an intemperate outburst — far less frequent than her delightful wit — one could imagine that St. Catherine of Siena would understand.

Mother Angelica was in strict continuity with American saints Mother Frances Cabrini and Mother Katharine Drexel, who founded vast apostolic works, convinced that God was calling them to great things, even if the clergy did not seem to recognize it. Legion are the stories of bishops facing a formidable Mother Teresa, who knew how to insist that what needed to be done got done.

One key to understanding the life of Mother Angelica lay in the Gospel read on Easter morning, just hours before she died. Mary Magdalen and the other holy women went to the tomb to do what needed to be done, but could not be done in the haste of Good Friday as the Sabbath approached. They came to do a corporal work of mercy, to prepare the body properly for burial. There were considerable obstacles, not least of which was the Roman guard posted at the tomb, and the heavy stone rolled against its entrance. Yet they went, knowing two things. If they didn’t go, no one would go. And if the Lord wanted them to anoint the body of Jesus, He could overcome the obstacles.

The reading on Easter morning brings to mind a favourite column that my former teacher, Fr. Jonathan Robinson of the Toronto Oratory, wrote in these pages more than 30 years ago. It seems particularly apt in thinking about religious women and their work in the Church.

“It was doing one of these natural routine human things — the final preparation of a body for burial — which led the women to the discovery of the empty tomb, and the news of the Resurrection,” Robinson wrote. “It was having something to do, and the implacable sort of courage to go and do what had to be done, that led the women to the Lord. The disciples, who had forsaken Him and fled at the time of the arrest, were laying low. They were having a committee meeting behind closed doors — for fear of the Jews, as St. John honestly explains.”

While many people, including the American bishops, had umpteen committee meetings to launch a Catholic television station, Mother Angelica started EWTN, literally in the garage of her convent. It has been for quite some time the largest Catholic media operation in the world, and many Catholics instinctively turn to it when they want Catholic news. More important, there are millions of Catholics who live their faith more completely because of EWTN, to say nothing of conversions and religious and priestly vocations. EWTN is simply one of the most important developments in the Church since the Second Vatican Council and has arguably done more than almost anyone else to embrace the call of Vatican II for lay Catholics to participate in the evangelical mission of the Church.

It has been the case almost since the beginning of religious life that the brothers and sisters do what the structures of diocesan and parish life cannot, or will not, do. That has certainly been the case in the United States in regard to health care and education. Mother Angelica was the latest in a long line of American sisters doing what they do best. What distinguished Mother Angelica and EWTN was that they engaged in the spiritual works of mercy — instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners — more than the corporal works. Both are necessary, and so it was fitting that Mother Angelica would die in the Jubilee of Mercy.

A final note. Mother Angelica’s long illness and withdrawal from active leadership after her stroke in 2001 also put her in the tradition of great American nuns. Mother Drexel, having founded her order for the corporal and spiritual care of black and native Americans, had a heart attack at age 75, and spent the remaining 20 years of her life restricted to her convent infirmary, praying and offering her sacrifices for the work of her sisters. 

Mother Angelica, requiescat in aeternam

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.conviviummagazine.ca.)

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