ROME – With the death of Mother Angelica on Easter Sunday, the Church has lost the most charismatic American Catholic media personality of her time, as well as someone who proved beyond any doubt that a determined and savvy woman can, after all, wield real power inside an organization often perceived as a boys’ club.
Ninety-two at the time of her death and largely withdrawn from the world, Mother Angelica at the top of her game was feisty, smart, alternately stern and hilarious, all wrapped up in the habit of a seemingly ordinary Franciscan nun. There was nothing “ordinary” about her, however, because for much of the 1980s and 1990s, she was simply the most riveting Catholic figure on the airwaves.
She also had an instinctive grasp of the media business, which allowed her to found the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and develop it into the global juggernaut it’s become.
In that sense, Mother Angelica was sort of a cross between Rupert Murdoch and the nun who taught you 3rd grade religion.
The fact that EWTN succeeded where other efforts to build a Catholic presence on cable failed, including one backed by the U.S. bishops’ conference, illustrates a core truth of the media world: At the beginning, you don’t need deep pockets, sophisticated technology, or extensive delivery platforms. All you need is one charismatic personality whom people will crawl over hot coals to see or hear, and everything else will take care of itself.
Mother Angelica was that lone figure, around whom an entire multimedia empire sprung up. She was, in effect, her generation’s Archbishop Fulton Sheen, someone whose videos will be circulated, cherished, and devoured forever by her devotees.
Granted, she was far from being everyone’s cup of tea.
Mother Angelica was an unapologetic and aggressive champion of Catholic orthodoxy, one of the leading exponents of what historians will no doubt see as a powerful conservative wave that rolled through American Catholicism in the 1980s and 90s.
More liberal Catholics often rued Mother Angelica’s influence. Among other things, they charged that she and her network came off as shrill, angry, and self-righteous, reinforcing rather than correcting popular stereotypes of the Church.
In truth, the accusation of being “shrill” mostly came from people who didn’t actually watch Mother Angelica, because while she certainly had a temper, most of the time what came through was a lively, even wicked, sense of humor.
That said, she was also nobody’s idea of a diplomat.
In 1993, she excoriated the choice to have a woman portray Jesus during a Stations of the Cross ritual at World Youth Day in Denver, which prompted some bishops to grouse about her “divisive” style. In 1997, she blasted then-Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles for a pastoral letter he issued on the Eucharist, finding it weak on belief in the Real Presence, and vowed that if she lived in Mahony’s diocese, she would show “zero obedience” to the bishop.
She later issued a somewhat muted apology, but for years some bishops wanted her and EWTN either muzzled or brought under their control. She consistently fought them off, showing keen behind-the-scenes smarts in cultivating just enough friends and allies in high places, including Rome, to avoid censures and takeover attempts.
One of the paradoxes about Mother Angelica is that although she was generally seen as a bête noire to Catholic progressives, there’s a strong case to be made that they, too, should celebrate her.
First, she proved that an independent, lay-led enterprise can pack a greater punch than officialdom in communicating a Catholic message. She and EWTN relativized the power of the hierarchy in America, not by attacking it, but simply by showing they didn’t need it to succeed.
Second, she also showed that a woman can stand toe-to-toe with powerful clerics in the Church and give every bit as good as she got.
Today there’s a great deal of ferment about how to promote leadership by women in the Church in ways that don’t involve ordination, a conversation Pope Francis himself has promoted. In a way, however, debating that question in the abstract seems silly, because we already have a classic, for-all-time example of female empowerment in Mother Angelica.
Rita Antoinette Rizzo, Mother Angelica’s given name, was many things: A lightning rod, a force of nature, an impresario, an entertainer, a deft commentator and pundit, and, beneath it all, a faithful and pious nun. Love her or hate her, she will be sorely missed – the Church just isn’t as much fun without her around to stir the waters, raise our blood pressure, get us to think, and remind us to pray.
To paraphrase Hamlet, “Take her for all in all, we shall not look upon her like again.”