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"Gods Little Trojan Horse on Crutches":
Raymond Arroyo on Mother Angelica | An Interview with Valerie Schmalz
| October 28, 2005
"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.
calls Mother Angelica "Gods little Trojan horse on crutches."
He attributes the success of his biography of her to Gods 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. Arroyos book is a page-turneran unauthorized biography
that left full control in Arroyos 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 familys home was
flooded in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and his wife gave birth to
their third child within a few days of the books 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 Rizzoborn 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 motherwho 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 hadnt seen anywhere either in print or in any interview
and I thought that these shouldnt be lost and should be worked into
a large full-scale biography and I approached her about doing this. I
told Mother Id love to do it but said Im not sure it can be
an authorized biographyI 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. Lets
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 were
willing to, if were open to his inspirations.
As Ive traveled the country doing book signings, that message has
really resonated. Its 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 didnt anticipate it
would have the reaction its 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
Ive worked on this book, and nobodys going to read this thing.
So that nightI lived in New York for many yearsI decided:
Im going to go downtown, Im going to go to my favorite Italian
spot and Im 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. Its astounding. Its part of
Mothers ongoing miracle and Divine Providence in action. It certainly
wasnt anything I was doing, I can tell you that.
IgnatiusInsight: She was your boss. It took a certain amount of guts to
say: "Im 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 youre 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 Im 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 thisbecause 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 dont have to
do these any longer every week. Im just going to call you for spot
interviews as I start writing the book. Lets 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
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 thats why its caught on. I
think thats why people are so drawn to itshe is an accessible
person who achieved sanctity and great feats with Gods help. Thats
an incredibly tantalizing story. And thats what theyre reacting
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.
Shes faced with the quandary of having to buy a satellite dish,
which costs about $1.5 million but she doesnt 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
cant deliver the satellite.
She goes out to greet the delivery man, and shes
stallingshes taking the guy on a tour of the monastery, shes
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, Ill 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 Im having
a little problem, we need this money or Im going to have to turn
your satellite away."
And she kind of waits for the money to fall from the ceiling and it doesnt,
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 hes very insistent,
he needs to talk to you and he wont get off the line." She
said, "But, I got big business out here, Sister." She says,
"I know, but hes very insistent." So she says, "Oh,
give me the phone." So she talks to this guy. Its 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. Hes calling because this book changed his life, helped
him reconcile with his family and hes 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 didnt believe the story myself. I pulled the records and
there it was. Pretty astounding stuff. Her story is replete with things
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 Churchcardinals and bishopswho
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 Angelicasuddenly 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 commissionbut 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
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 1960sas I discovered
in some of the writings that hadnt been seen in a whileshe
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 extremeand 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 ofthe journey ofthe 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
IgnatiusInsight: Can you tell me a little bit about her clashes with the
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 didnt have any of those things. They didnt have
a person to front their network for them, if you will. They couldnt
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
Conflict Over EWTN ProgrammingMother Angelica Blackballs Some
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 Pauls 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. Theres a great story in the book where a priest
calls her because she refuses to have some bishops interviewed, very dissenting
bishopsI 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 wont be there
forever." And she said, "Ill blow the damn thing up before
you get your hands on it. Ive 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 Angelicas 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
Mother Angelica makes this signal available free to cable operators and
she doesnt charge anyone who appears on the airwaves. It is an amazing
accomplishment. That alone is amazing, quite apart from the way shes
universalized the papacy and brought the pope home for so many people.
Shes David. This is David and Goliath. Gods little Trojan
horse on crutches.
IgnatiusInsight: As a journalist, was this the story of a lifetime?
Arroyo: Its an amazing story. You cant make this stuff
up. I was astounded nobody had seized upon it before. Why someone else
had not gone after this story, I dont know. And similarly mystified,
weve had a heck of a time trying to get TV coverage for this bookits
been impossible. The cause of that, I cant begin to figure out.
Because it is just such a great human story, quite apart from the fact
shes a nun. Its a womans story; its 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. Thats why, you do have to stand
back and saysay what they want about Mother Angelica at the end
of the day, and theres 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 shes 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. Shes much better off the cuff.
Shes 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
shed 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
was with her maybe four weeks ago. They were kind of pulling the wimple
just so and fixing the veilshe said: "What am I, a porcelain
doll? Back off, Sister!" She can still get off the zingers when she
wants them. Its the more serious expressions that elude her.
When she really wants to say something and shes thinking hard about
it or you ask her a serious question, she gets lost in a tangle of words.
Its aphasia. Its severe aphasiathe mind knows exactly
what it wants to saythe command to speak is dulled. Those connections
have not been restored. Thats what the difficulty is.
In many ways, shes a miracle. Its a miracle shes 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. Shes happy, shes with the nuns, praying
four hours a day.
Its bittersweet. But its probably more sweet than bitter.
You knowshes fully a cloistered nun and thats 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 lifeit 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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