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"God’s Little Trojan Horse on Crutches": Raymond Arroyo on Mother Angelica | An Interview with Valerie Schmalz | October 28, 2005

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"When she launched into cable, she was 58 years old with diabetes, a bloated heart, a twisted spine and two lame legs and $200 in the bank. The woman had everything going against her…Surely God moved in some incredible way through this life."


Raymond Arroyo is best known as host of "The World Over" on EWTN. His new biography on the founder and driving force of Eternal World Television Network, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles, hit the New York Times best-seller list the first week it was out, and sits there still.

Arroyo calls Mother Angelica "God’s little Trojan horse on crutches." He attributes the success of his biography of her to God’s grace and to the remarkable story of the feisty former Rita Rizzo of Canton, Ohio. Mother Angelica is the story of the founder of the largest religious broadcasting network in the world, of a women who in 2000 gave away all control to a lay board rather than leave it open to the takeover attempt she believed was brewing among some in the USCCB.

That brawl was just one found the fascinating story of EWTN and Mother Angelica. Arroyo’s book is a page-turner–an unauthorized biography that left full control in Arroyo’s hands but written with the full cooperation of Mother Angelica. It is clear he deeply respects and loves the outspoken 82-year-old cloistered nun who is now nearly silenced by a stroke and cerebral hemorrhage.

As Arroyo recounts, "One evening, before shooting her live show, she gave me but one instruction, which has haunted me to this day: ‘Make sure you present the real me. There is nothing worse than a book that sugarcoats the truth and ducks the humanity of the person. I wish you forty days in Purgatory if you do that!’"

Arroyo himself has been on a roller coaster. His family’s home was flooded in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and his wife gave birth to their third child within a few days of the book’s launch. He says he is not sure where the family will land permanently. Prior to the hurricane, he had commuted weekly from New Orleans to Birmingham, Alabama.

IgnatiusInsight: What is the book about, what inspired it?

Raymond Arroyo:
The book is about this incredible, imperfect woman, Rita Rizzo–born in Canton, Ohio in 1923 amid very dire circumstances, rejected by her father, abandoned by him at five years old and left in the care of an unstable mother–who God used to do incredible things. And, to achieve a mission that honestly escaped millions, including the bishops of the United States: principally the founding of the largest religious media empire on the planet. That is what little Rita, Mother Angelica, was able to accomplish.

The book came about in 1999. I was asking myself what I should do next. I had heard bits of her story. She had told me little hidden moments of her life that I hadn’t seen anywhere either in print or in any interview and I thought that these shouldn’t be lost and should be worked into a large full-scale biography and I approached her about doing this. I told Mother I’d love to do it but said I’m not sure it can be an authorized biography–I think I want it to be unauthorized so I have editorial control. So I thought that might kill the deal, but she went away and prayed over it a little bit and said, "All right. Let’s start and see what happens."

And she kind of launched in. I conducted interviews with her just about every Saturday morning for about three years from 1999 to November 28th of 2001. She made available to me her letters, her archives, her diaries, her very potent, at times difficult and hard memories, her friends, her sister, her physicians. As we got into it she revealed so much more than I ever anticipated and I think it has made for a richer book, a more complex book, and certainly more truthful. In the final analysis, when you look at the story, what it proves is that sanctity is possible without perfection. That God uses often our weaknesses and our wounds to his purposes if we’re willing to, if we’re open to his inspirations.

As I’ve traveled the country doing book signings, that message has really resonated. It’s a hopeful, inspirational message that I think we need now.

IgnatiusInsight: Did you have any idea this was going to be a New York Times best seller?

Arroyo:
I had hoped that it would be a New York Times best seller. I had hoped, but I think every author hopes his book is going to be a New York Times bestseller! I didn’t anticipate it would have the reaction it’s had and with such suddenness. I knew Mother was loved, I knew I had a certain audience out there, but I never imagined that this book would propel us onto the list that quickly.

Let me tell you, the week after publication, I was in New York to do all the media for this and we were set up on every show, we had all the shows lined up and everything. But with Katrina aftermath and then Hurricane Rita coming ashore and the FEMA director resigning and John Roberts Supreme Court nomination, we got bumped off every show except one little overnight radio show in New York. I was deeply depressed. I thought, five years I’ve worked on this book, and nobody’s going to read this thing. So that night–I lived in New York for many years–I decided: I’m going to go downtown, I’m going to go to my favorite Italian spot and I’m going to treat myself to a Broadway show. So I bought half-price tickets to a show appropriately called "Doubt" and made my way to the theater. As I walked to the theater the phone rang and it was Doubleday saying we landed at Number 16 on the extended New York Times bestseller list our first week out. In the following two weeks, we went onto the formal list. It’s astounding. It’s part of Mother’s ongoing miracle and Divine Providence in action. It certainly wasn’t anything I was doing, I can tell you that.

IgnatiusInsight: She was your boss. It took a certain amount of guts to say: "I’m going to do an unauthorized biography."

Arroyo:
She was still my boss when I approached her. But, in 2001, Mother resigned from the network so she ceased being my boss in the middle of the process. It was part of the reason I asked for an unauthorized biography. I wanted the freedom to tell the story apart from my position at EWTN and any sway she could have over the final manuscript. I just felt it important to maintain the independence of my efforts and the work itself. Look, there are many things in there I am sure Mother would not have put in there. I thought it important that I had the freedom to do it. I wanted to name the names and tell people what really happened. At times, I knew that would be a difficulty when you’re part of an organization. Thank God I was inspired early on to make it an independent thing. The amazing thing is, many of the folks at EWTN are very pleased with it. Mother, herself has just been delighted by the book itself, and so have the nuns, so I’m pleased with what we came up with.

IgnatiusInsight: Can you relate three really telling anecdotes that you put into the book?

Arroyo:
Let me tell you this–because this is a great little story onto itself. We started the process in 1999 and we ended on November 28th, 2001. Being a very disorganized person, I decided we would move chronologically through her life: from the beginning to the present. By November 28th, 2001 we had hit the present. I said, "Look, we don’t have to do these any longer every week. I’m just going to call you for spot interviews as I start writing the book. Let’s do a forward-looking interview now"–which we did.

Then, she went into her convent for her Advent retreat and on Christmas Eve of that year of 2001, she was felled by a debilitating stroke accompanied by a cerebral hemorrhage that really sealed her memory and stilled her speech.

I often think had I hesitated following up on the little inspiration I had in ’99 or had she hesitated and not cooperated, much of the story would have been lost. Because there were so many little threads that she would give me that I would pick up on, and go out into the field and find the original sources of and interview a whole different group of people. Divine Providence is really at the heart of this story and at the heart of the writing of this story.

Beyond that, at one point she told me: "I wish you forty years in Purgatory if you sugarcoat my life. I want the people to see the humanity so they realized God did everything." So just to keep out of Purgatory I told the full story and it was hard at times. We see a woman here who is wounded; who has failings and difficulties. She can be tempestuous at times, just like us. I think that’s why it’s caught on. I think that’s why people are so drawn to it–she is an accessible person who achieved sanctity and great feats with God’s help. That’s an incredibly tantalizing story. And that’s what they’re reacting to.

Mother Angelica and the Satellite Dish

Now, you wanted anecdotes. There are a lot of great anecdotes in the book. In 1981 when nobody gave this woman a chance, the bishops’ conference had already announced their plans to start and launch a cable network the year after she launched hers. They had millions of dollars at their disposal, they had scads of consultants: they had the theology they believed the contemporary church ached for. And yet, here was this little nun in Birmingham, Alabama, with no broadcast experience, no letters following her name except for the religious order that she belonged to, and $200 in the bank and she kind of bumbles into television.

She’s faced with the quandary of having to buy a satellite dish, which costs about $1.5 million but she doesn’t have the money to do so. After conning a RCA vice president into sending the thing down to her, the satellite is delivered that day in ’81 and she has to present the deliveryman with $600,000 at the point of delivery or they can’t deliver the satellite.





She goes out to greet the delivery man, and she’s stalling–she’s taking the guy on a tour of the monastery, she’s handing out cookies, anything to keep him from asking for the money. Finally, he asks for the $600,000 and she says–"Let me go pray for a minute, I’ll be right back." She goes into the chapel and she kneels down and as spouses are wont to do, she kind of tried to make her spouse feel guilty. She says, "I thought you wanted this satellite Lord and I wheeled and dealed and I got it for you and now I’m having a little problem, we need this money or I’m going to have to turn your satellite away."

And she kind of waits for the money to fall from the ceiling and it doesn’t, so she decides to get up and turn the delivery truck away. And as she walks out, one of the sisters comes running out of the monastery and says, "Mother, there is a man on the phone and he’s very insistent, he needs to talk to you and he won’t get off the line." She said, "But, I got big business out here, Sister." She says, "I know, but he’s very insistent." So she says, "Oh, give me the phone." So she talks to this guy. It’s a businessman calling from his yacht in the Bahamas. He read one of her little spiritual books she had written, a little mini book, tracts on the spiritual life, years before. He’s calling because this book changed his life, helped him reconcile with his family and he’s calling to make a donation to her book ministry, a donation of $600,000. She says, "Can you send it right now?"

He wired the funds in. That was the down payment for the satellite that to this day continues to beam EWTN all over the country. I saw the transfer papers. I didn’t believe the story myself. I pulled the records and there it was. Pretty astounding stuff. Her story is replete with things like this.

Mother Angelica and the Bishops

Later on, it would be the bishops’ conference that would cross swords with her. Because, you know, you have this orthodox woman and it was very funny. Because the very people within the Church–cardinals and bishops–who were crying that women needed to have more power in the church, women needed to ascend the altars …the moment a woman stood up and opened her mouth and she happened to be an orthodox little woman of the people like Mother Angelica–suddenly everybody had to shut her up, put her down, shut her up. There is something of an irony in that.

Years later, as you can read in the book, there were several attempts made on the life of the network. Millionaires tried to come in and take it over and buy her out. The bishops’ conference makes enormous difficulties for this little woman. Then she gets into her little tussle with the cardinal in Los Angeles. That leads to a Vatican investigation of her finances, of her order and really presages the stroke that would take Mother out of commission–but not before the pope and God would defend her and she would have her final swan song.

In some ways, it is a very dramatic story and a snapshot of the post-Vatican II Church.

Mother Angelica Mirrors the Changes of the Post Vatican II Church

This woman went through many of the things that the Church went through. She came into the Church in 1944, she came into the convent so she was certainly pre-Vatican II in her background, very traditional, and then she became something of a radical. Mother, in the 1960s–as I discovered in some of the writings that hadn’t been seen in a while–she was calling for the end of the grate in the cloister, ripping out of the grill. She wanted cloistered life and religious life to be modernized in the extreme–and this was before the Council. But, she quickly realizes, I think, the excesses of her thought. Then she becomes a Charismatic. Then, coming out of that, she slips into a more traditional sacramental phase, a Marian phase in her teachings and in her life. In many ways, she mirrors the travels of–the journey of–the Church in that fractious period. That was kind of an unintended side benefit of the book. You really do see this tempestuous confusing history, writ large. Quite a lady.

IgnatiusInsight: Can you tell me a little bit about her clashes with the bishops?

Arroyo:
The source of the clashes with the bishops started in 1982 when they launched their cable network, the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America. Mother Angelica had already been on television for a year. She had already established some penetration into the local cable system. She was building a following. She had this great personality and humor; she could make lofty concepts accessible to the masses.

The bishops didn’t have any of those things. They didn’t have a person to front their network for them, if you will. They couldn’t agree on a message. The largest difficulty they had when they launched in 1982 was Mother Angelica had already taken the market and cable was only going to sustain one Catholic cable network and she was it. This is the real source of a lot of the difficulties that would happen later.

Mother Angelica, this simple woman, shamed them in the cable arena. She beat them to the punch and she was able to keep her network going. The Catholic Telecommunications Network of America had to cease operations and in 1992 liquidated everything, costing us millions and millions of dollars.

Conflict Over EWTN Programming–Mother Angelica Blackballs Some Bishops

The second thing that caused a lot of the tensions is that Mother was insistent that she would only propagate the teachings of the Magisterium and feature those people who would be supportive of papal teaching and of John Paul’s thought. At the time there were a lot of bishops and priests and some religious who were dissenters. They had their own versions of the faith. She would not permit them access to her airways. That caused a lot of controversy. There’s a great story in the book where a priest calls her because she refuses to have some bishops interviewed, very dissenting bishops–I mean these guys were calling for the end of celibacy and ordination of women. These were hardly mainstream bishops. But she would not allow them to be interviewed.

And this priest called her from the Conference and said, "Who are you to decide which bishops should on be air? She said, "I happen to own the network." He said, "Well, you won’t be there forever." And she said, "I’ll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on it. I’ve chosen my Magisterium, you choose yours." And hung up the phone. These things did not exactly endear her to the bureaucrats at the NCCB either.

Mother Angelica’s Legacy to EWTN Today

Mother was a fighter. Mother was a defender of the faith, as I call her in the book. And those people are not always well thought of at the moment. In time, though, I have no doubt that we will all look back and realize the great contribution this woman made, not only to the Church but in secular terms. This is the first woman in the history of television to found a not-for-profit cable network. The only woman in the history of television to create a network that for 25 years has sustained itself only with the donations of her audience. That is a singular achievement in television. PBS has government subsidies. Other Christian networks charge the people that appear on the airwaves and the cable operators fees.

Mother Angelica makes this signal available free to cable operators and she doesn’t charge anyone who appears on the airwaves. It is an amazing accomplishment. That alone is amazing, quite apart from the way she’s universalized the papacy and brought the pope home for so many people.

She’s David. This is David and Goliath. God’s little Trojan horse on crutches.

IgnatiusInsight: As a journalist, was this the story of a lifetime?

Arroyo:
It’s an amazing story. You can’t make this stuff up. I was astounded nobody had seized upon it before. Why someone else had not gone after this story, I don’t know. And similarly mystified, we’ve had a heck of a time trying to get TV coverage for this book–it’s been impossible. The cause of that, I can’t begin to figure out. Because it is just such a great human story, quite apart from the fact she’s a nun. It’s a woman’s story; it’s a story of hope and overcoming incredible obstacles.

When she launched into cable, she was 58 years old with diabetes, a bloated heart, a twisted spine, and two lame legs and $200 in the bank. The woman had everything going against her. That’s why, you do have to stand back and say–say what they want about Mother Angelica at the end of the day, and there’s no taking away her failings and she was very candid about them, but at the end of the day there is no way this woman would have been capable of doing what she’s done. Surely, God moved in some incredible way through this life. I think, any honest fair-minded person looking at all of this has to say: something was happening here with this woman.

IgnatiusInsight: Since her stroke, can Mother Angelica speak at all now?

Arroyo:
She speaks a little bit. She’s much better off the cuff. She’s great at calling me down; O.K. let me put it that way. I was with her about two weeks ago. I was pushing her through the monastery and I was pushing her really fast trying to get her to a room I thought she’d like to see and she said, "Slow down, what we are having, a race here?" so she kind of snapped away.

When the nuns are fussing over her habit and stuff before pictures…I was with her maybe four weeks ago. They were kind of pulling the wimple just so and fixing the veil–she said: "What am I, a porcelain doll? Back off, Sister!" She can still get off the zingers when she wants them. It’s the more serious expressions that elude her.

When she really wants to say something and she’s thinking hard about it or you ask her a serious question, she gets lost in a tangle of words. It’s aphasia. It’s severe aphasia–the mind knows exactly what it wants to say–the command to speak is dulled. Those connections have not been restored. That’s what the difficulty is.

In many ways, she’s a miracle. It’s a miracle she’s alive considering what she went through and the time a portion of her brain was without oxygen (after her stroke and cerebral hemorrhage in 2001). But, she continues on. She’s happy, she’s with the nuns, praying four hours a day.

It’s bittersweet. But it’s probably more sweet than bitter. You know–she’s fully a cloistered nun and that’s what she vowed to do anyway. The television was, I think, a momentary sidetrack that God called her to. But, it was not, and never was, the center of her life–it was her work.



Valerie Schmalz
is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.



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