Last week a parishioner gave me Raymond Arroyo’s unauthorized biography of Mother Angelica. With mild curiosity, I read the dust jacket and table of contents. My plan was to skim the book, then return to it when I had more time. I liked Mother Angelica, but I knew little about her life or how she founded the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). I also admired Raymond Arroyo, often listening to his news and interview program, The World Over. As I began skimming the biography, I quickly became hooked. It turned out to be what I call a "dangerous book." Every year or two I will pick up a book which so grabs my attention that I wind up devoting every spare moment to reading it. Besides the most basic duties, everything else takes second place.
I was expecting a somewhat saccharine story about a folksy contemplative sister. Instead the book depicts what to me is the most difficult reality: the cross, that is, the suffering which a person can embrace for God and for ones fellow man. With the unflinching eye of an investigative reporter, Raymond Arroyo recounts painful details of her childhood. Rita Rizzo (the girl who would become Mother Angelica) had a wandering father who abandoned her at an early age. Her mother, never well balanced, became unhinged by the divorce – at that time a terrible stigma – and wound up reversing the normal mother-daughter roles. She increasingly demanded emotional support from her daughter and provided very little in return.
In her twenties, Rita met a Catholic convert turned mystic, who transformed the young woman’s life. Entering a contemplative religious order, against her mother’s bitter protests, she encountered more painful forms of suffering. Physical ailments – such as knees swollen to the size of cantaloupes – almost brought an end to her religious vocation. Raymond Arroyo, cautious as a newsman should be, relates the apparent miraculous cure which enabled her to continue in the convent.
The story of how this contemplative sister founded a world-wide television and radio network is too complex to describe here. Without giving away the story, let me state that it was hardly a smooth journey from one triumph to the next. The biography reads like a novel depicting the suspense and mounting opposition which Mother Angelica and her sisters confronted. Inability to pay enormous bills, the betrayal of co-workers and the death of dear ones (including her mother who had become one of her sisters) led to bouts of anguish and near-despair. During this long “dark night of the soul” only her iron will and her prayer to Jesus kept her going.
This book will probably be read mainly by “conservatives.” That is a shame – and perhaps makes this a dangerous book in another sense. It is easy for those concerned with doctrinal integrity to feel betrayed by official teachers. The book describes Mother Angelica’s strong reaction even against bishops who, for example, promoted women’s ordination or who watered down difficult teachings (such as marital fecundity). In that atmosphere, one can take aim at the wrong target – as Mother Angelica sometimes did. For example in his 1987 visit to the U.S., the pope was in Phoenix for the Feast of the Holy Cross (September 14). The organizers provided a large, bare cross for him to kiss. Mother Angelica railed against the organizers, seeing this as a sign of how the American Church wants to take Jesus off the cross.
No doubt every pastor in the country, including the most orthodox, has had conservatives attack him for what they perceive as liturgical or doctrinal deviations. The smallest misstep can be magnified until it seems to include all the abuses of the past four decades. For this kind of misguided zeal, many pastors are only too eager to lay the blame at Mother Angelica’s feet. “Another complaint from one of the EWTN crowd.”
Whether Raymond Arroyo’s book will increase polarization or reduce it, depends on how people read the book. It is easy to get caught up in the political dimension and miss what I believe is Raymond’s deeper purpose: to show us a woman who came from a difficult background and who by her own admission has many flaws, but who has embraced suffering with its redemptive power. In a word, he wants to help us glimpse the mystery and the triumph of the cross.
From Archives (for Exaltation of Cross):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Giving credit where credit is due: Watch Notre Dame halftime commercial (click on 60 second version)
In case you ever wondered what dissenters are trying to say, Mark Shea provides a helpful translation