|Actor Jim Caviezel pays his respects at the casket of Mother Angelica before her April 1 funeral Mass at the the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala. Mother Angelica, who founded the Eternal Word Television Network and turned it into one of the world’s largest religious media operations, died March 27 at age 92. CNS photo/Jeffrey Bruno, EWTN|
HANCEVILLE, Ala. With Mother Angelica having been essentially bedridden for 15 years following a series of strokes in 2001, staff at the Eternal Word Television Network and members of her order, the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, had plenty of time to plan and prepare for her funeral.
“We at EWTN had many plans for when this day would come,” said Father Joseph Wolfe of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word in his homily at the April 1 funeral Mass. “But God was full of surprises when it came to Mother Angelica.”
One surprise: Because Mother Angelica, 92, died March 27, Easter Sunday, some revisions had to be made as church law prohibits reading from the Office of the Dead during the Easter octave.
The first reading for the funeral Mass, celebrated at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, also had to be changed. Selected to take its place was a passage from the Book of Revelation, where St. John said he “saw a new heaven and a new earth.”
Mother Angelica “prepared as a bride for her husband, adorned for her husband,” Father Wolfe said. “You cannot understand Mother Angelica without reference for the one that she loved with a passion: Jesus, the eternal word, who became man and dwelt among us.”
Father Wolfe also told of the time that a teenage Rita Rizzo suffered from a stomach ailment that lasted nearly four years. He said that she had recalled of those events, “When the Lord came in and healed me, through the Little Flower (St. Therese of Lisieux), I had a whole different attitude. I knew there was a God. I knew that God loved me and was interested in me. I didn’t know that before. ... All I wanted to do after my healing was give myself to Jesus.” In a letter, Mother Angelica had said, “Before I was cured I was a lukewarm Catholic. ... When I think of all that he has done for me and how little I have done for him, I could cry.”
Some would argue that in her life, Mother Angelica did much: founding EWTN, branching out into radio, shortwave and print, and establishing a monastery in Alabama, which is thinly populated with Catholics.
Father Wolfe also told of Mother Angelica’s solemn profession as a religious: “The bishop, I think, was late, he rushed through the ceremony, he put the ring on her finger just about halfway. But there was something deeper going on inside of her.” He added, “We’re trying to make up for that lack of ceremony today” during the two-hour invitation-only Mass that had other mourners on the piazza outside the church. The funeral was shown live on EWTN.
“Hers was a practical spirituality for the man in the pew,” Father Wolfe said. “I believe that deep down we all want holiness because it is the only thing that is really satisfies us. The saints are those who reached their potential.”
The priest also read a recollection from the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration’s mother vicar, Sister Mary Michael. “Being a spiritual daughter of Mother Angelica has been a unique privileged experience. Mother had a wealth of spiritual knowledge,” she said.
However, Sister Mary Michael added, “she had to use ‘yelling theology.’”
“Most of us have experienced that, her yelling theology,” Father Wolfe said before returning to Sister Mary Michael’s words: “She used it on me once and later explained to me that she had to do it to get me to listen.”
“Problems and challenges did not discourage Mother,” Father Wolfe said. “No pity parties allowed. If one door closes, go through another, following the leading of Our Lord, and be one with it. What seemed to be setbacks often turned out to be an opening for something bigger and better.”
He added, “Mother was not afraid to do what seemed ridiculous. Her only fear was not to do God’s work.”
A controversial figure
Feisty and outspoken, she was a major controversial figure in the U.S. Church in the closing decades of the 20th century. At the same time, the international scope of EWTN’s media operations gave her a ready calling card at the Vatican.
She built the venture into a network that transmits programs 24 hours a day to more than 230 million homes in 144 countries via cable and other technologies. It broadcasts in English and several other languages.
“This is a sorrow-filled day for the entire EWTN family. Mother has always, and will always, personify EWTN, the network which she founded,” Michael P. Warsaw, chairman and CEO, said in a statement after her death was announced.
“In the face of sickness and long-suffering trials, Mother’s example of joy and prayerful perseverance exemplified the Franciscan spirit she held so dear. We thank God for Mother Angelica and for the gift of her extraordinary life,” he said. “Her accomplishments and legacies in evangelization throughout the world are nothing short of miraculous and can only be attributed to divine providence and her unwavering faithfulness to Our Lord.”
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross to Mother Angelica and Deacon Bill Steltemeier, then-chairman of EWTN’s board of governors, for distinguished service to the church. Before joining EWTN, Deacon Steltemeier was a Nashville attorney and in the first class of permanent deacons ordained for the Diocese of Nashville in 1975. The cross, whose name is Latin for “for the church and the pope,” is the highest papal honor that can be conferred on laypeople and clergy.
Because of ill health, Mother Angelica received the award in her private quarters. But in the public ceremony, Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham said “Mother Angelica’s effort has been at the vanguard of the new evangelization and has had a great impact on our world.”
Mother Angelica was equally at home giving a scale model of her satellite dish to St. John Paul II or ruffling the feathers of high-ranking church officials with whom she disagreed. Over the years, she was involved in several public squabbles with U.S. bishops, including criticizing a pastoral letter on the Eucharist by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles as confusing about the real presence of Christ; canceling a contract to air programs produced by the U.S. bishops after disagreements about EWTN’s coverage of bishops’ conference meetings; and calling a church sponsored World Youth Day event during St. John Paul II’s visit to Denver “blasphemous” because a mime troupe used a woman to portray Jesus in a dramatized Way of the Cross.
‘Theology of risk’
Mother Angelica often said she accompanied her faith with a “theology of risk” that gave her the resolve to undertake large projects without any clear indication she would succeed.
“Faith is having one foot on the ground and the other up in the air, waiting for the Lord to put the ground under it,” she once said of her hands-on approach to doing things.
“We have lost the theology of risk and replaced it with a theology of assurance” that says “you have to know what’s going to happen before you embark on something new,” she said on another occasion.
Before starting EWTN, Mother Angelica wrote what she called “mini-books” on moral and inspirational themes. The popularity of the mini-books attracted media attention, and Mother Angelica began appearing on television talk shows. She said these appearances made her aware of the tremendous influence television has in spreading messages.
Prior to starting EWTN, Mother Angelica was renting studio space from a Birmingham television station to produce videotapes of her talks on religious issues for airing on the Christian Broadcasting Network. She broke the relationship with the network after it aired a movie she considered blasphemous.
With the support of her religious community, Mother Angelica began consulting with media experts about starting her own TV station, hatching the idea of EWTN. She was granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission, and EWTN went on the air in August 1981.
She began with $200 and little knowledge about TV production. The operation started in a building meant to be a garage on the grounds of the Our Lady of the Angels Monastery she headed in the Irondale suburb of Birmingham. Originally its daily programming of several hours was carried by three cable systems.
In 1992, Mother Angelica launched the short-wave EWTN Global Catholic Radio which broadcasts in English and Spanish. In 1996, EWTN started a satellite-delivered AM/FM radio network with programming also available for rebroadcast by local stations.
In 1998, Mother Angelica stepped down as the head of EWTN and Deacon Steltemeier was appointed chairman and CEO. He died in 2013.
Mother Angelica was born April 20, 1923, as Rita Rizzo in an Italian neighborhood in Canton, Ohio. She described her childhood as rough. Her father abandoned the family when she was young and her parents eventually divorced. She lived with her mother and said their existence was marked by poverty.
“We lived in rat-infested apartments – our life was so hard. I was interested in survival so I didn’t do well in school. It’s hard when you’re hungry and cold to study,” she recalled in 1987.
In 1944, she joined her religious order and professed her solemn vows in Canton in 1953 as Sister Mary Angelica of the Annunciation.
In 1962, she founded Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, a move she said was to fulfill a promise to Christ if she emerged from an operation able to walk. The operation was necessary after she slipped while using an electric scrubbing machine and was thrown against the wall, injuring her spine. After the operation, she used a leg brace.
The funeral Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, vice chairman of the EWTN board and its longest-serving current member. Other bishops present included Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican nuncio to the United States; Bishop Baker and his predecessor, retired Bishop David E. Foley; and Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix.
After the funeral, a private committal service took place at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration’s motherhouse. Mother Angelica was to be interred in a crypt at the monastery.