Easter Sunday is a good day for dying, a good day for being born into eternal life. Mother Angelica died on last Easter Sunday, and we should be consoled by the time of her passing as we gather to pray for the repose of her soul as she awaits the Resurrection of the body.
Today’s Easter Gospel passage and the reading from Acts both speak of spectacular miracles. In the Gospel the apostles had been fishing all through the night without catching anything. And they did not recognize Jesus as he stood on the bank and invited them to try once more. I suspect the fisherman complied with the request out of politeness rather than conviction. But they took in a great catch of 153 fish, which strained their nets, and Jesus then gave them breakfast. In the passage from Acts we have Peter and John curing the crippled man through the power of Jesus Christ, and so disturbing the high priests and the leaders with their teachings and their miracles. It was after the first Pentecost, and Peter was no longer afraid as he defended his good deed done to a cripple. Mother Angelica would have been proud of him. ‘The man who stands before you was healed,’ he proclaimed, ‘in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. He is the stone rejected by you builders which has become the corner stone. And there is no salvation through anyone else.’ As the cross was proclaimed as a sign of contradiction with such faith and courage, it’s not surprising that by then the early Christian community numbered 5,000 men.
Some parallels quickly come to mind. The spread and effectiveness of Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network, EWTN, founded in 1981 with an investment of $200 was as unexpected as the apostles’ huge catch of fish. So too we should draw strength from the fact that Peter’s salvation message was exactly the same as Mother Angelica’s, unbroken and substantially unchanged across 2,000 years. This kerygma, the basic Good News, doesn’t need improvement or pruning, and doesn’t need corrections or additions. And part of Mother Angelica’s effectiveness came from her acceptance of this truth.
Mother Angelica’s public personality was so boisterous that we can be tempted to forget that she was a contemplative Franciscan nun, a Poor Clare from the age of 21. I still feel her religious name is somewhat incongruous, as she was not angelic in any conventional sense. The Little Flower’s parents were both canonized, but Mother Angelica had no such blessing. Born into a poor family in the Rust Belt, Ohio, Rita Rizzo’s father abandoned her when she was five, and she was brought up by her mother, who suffered from depression. She did poorly at school – at the McKinley High School – although she was the drum majorette in the school band. Her life story brings a message of encouragement for all those who were or are children from broken homes. Some, perhaps many, from such backgrounds are tempted to be resentful, short of self-confidence, uncertain of their ability to contribute or build a good family. Mother Angelica is one more example of what can be achieved from difficult beginnings. She knew what it was to struggle. She wasn’t a ‘milk and water’ character, but a triumph of God’s grace through, and perhaps despite, her nature. She truly cast fire upon the earth.
God works in unexpected ways, as Mother Angelica promised him that she would found a monastery deep in the Protestant south, at Irondale in Alabama. With four companions she came there in 1962. An unlikely launching pad for an international television network, although probably not quite as unpromising a spot as Bethlehem and Nazareth. Mother began in a small way by recording video tapes of her homilies in the 1970s until she founded EWTN with Deacon Bill Steltemeier. Eventually EWTN pioneered the digital revolution in broadcasting, and many experts visited to examine just what they were doing. There was an enormous development and progression.
Mother Angelica was conservative, direct, and in fact somewhat divisive. She spoke truth to authority, as strong women have ever done to their families, their priests and bishops, and sometimes to the public; just think of Catherine of Siena. She didn’t found another church, and while she spoke bluntly to a number of the Church’s officials, she recognized the office of Pope and bishops and priests.
The Catholic world was very different back when she unleashed her withering attack on those who presented a female Christ figure at the 1993 Denver World Youth Day. There were not, then, as there are now, so many signs of hope; not so many young, orthodox and vital priests and religious. And this para-liturgical abuse provoked her to unleash the pent-up frustrations of many years. It was powerful and eloquent, something of a diatribe, certainly over-the-top in some ways. But thank God she spoke that way. When I read it, I remember thinking ‘yes, she’s right.’ And one Australian activist had written to me just recently, and told me that he changed his life’s direction after hearing it. It wasn’t discreet – in fact it was massively imprudent. But it was great copy for the journalists, and a great witness to the Christ that we follow.
She slowed down the drift toward destruction, turned away many from damaging themselves. We pray for her soul, despite the long years of penance through suffering which occurred after her strokes in 2001. May she be liberated from the effects of her weakness and sins.
Above all we thank God for her message, her courage and her faith. And we pray that the Church in the United States will throw up other giants equally unexpectedly to help strengthen our faith and lead us to Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
George Card. Pell
Secretariat for the Economy
Photo CC Kerry Myers