The reverberating silence of Mother Angelica
Mother Mary Angelica was easily the best known and most influential woman in the Catholic Church — and she still may be.
Against all odds, Rita Rizzo, a wounded girl from Canton, Ohio became a cloistered nun and in her 58th year founded the Eternal Word Television Network in a monastery garage in 1981. The venture turned her into a cable television fixture. From humble beginnings she grew the thing into a global media empire reaching more than 250 million households on television, a massive shortwave network and 300 AM/FM affiliates across the US. Angelica remains the only woman in the history of broadcasting to found and lead a cable network as CEO, chair of the board and leading light for 20 years.
But perhaps her most important work was conducted in a corner room of her monastery in Hanceville, Alabama when she could no longer speak.
Following a severe brain hemorrhage and simultaneous stroke on Christmas Eve of 2001, she spent the last 15 years of her life in a protracted silence hidden from the public; a period when her words and message reached more people and had more potency than at any time during her broadcasting career. Her last days expose the richness to be found at the end of a life and the power of suffering offered up for the sake of others.
A few years into her confinement, one of Mother Angelica’s sisters entered her room and asked the abbess if she wanted to get into her wheelchair and venture out onto the patio for some fresh air. Mother instantly responded, “No, this is where I am supposed to be. In this room.” To her nuns this statement conveyed a resigned sense that Angelica understood the bedroom to be part of her spiritual lot — the final arena where she would prove her sanctity, the place where God desired that she continue her work spiritually.
Even during her active years two principles guided Mother Angelica’s life: a radical reliance on “Divine Providence,” and a strong determination to “live in the present moment.” She was never one to cling to the past or day dream about the future. Angelica always kept her herself rooted in the present and available to the gifts and challenges therein.
These life principles would be severely tested when Mother lost her voice and relinquished the steely will that made her a household name. She did not do so easily. She resisted therapy and even fought with her caretakers. But eventually, Angelica not only accepted the deprivation of speech and mobility, but told her nuns that she was offering it all up to God “for the people.”
Throughout her more than 70 years of religious life she had one mission: to bring spiritual hope to those in dire straits, particularly those contending with illness. In her last years she would continue her mission in ways she never imagined. Mother Angelica once told me: “I have spiritually healed precisely because I have not been physically healed. Suffering is healing. There are those who think the path to holiness is to be healed of bodily suffering, but oftentimes God uses that suffering to change us and to heal our souls — and the souls of others.”
Mother Angelica demonstrates that there is great meaning to be found in even the cruelest of suffering. When borne with faith, there is hope love and redemption to be found on the far side of pain. It was the last lesson Mother Angelica imparted to me before she died on Easter Sunday of this year. Quite remarkably, her offering and mission continues. It is still being felt at this hour whenever those desperate for hope stumble across the image or voice of this “funny nun” — just when they need her most.
Raymond Arroyo, author of “Mother Angelica Her Grand Silence: The Last Years and Living Legacy,” is the news director and lead anchor of EWTN.