"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.
Arroyo 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 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 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 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.
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."
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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