My regrets for the recent hiatus—a combination of the business of this time of the year, family and travel obligations, and feeling somewhat under the weather has deprived me of the time I like to spend writing this blog. So let’s jump back in. I was going to start soft, but then thought I would bring out a piece I have been working at off and on over the past two months.
This past Easter Sunday the indomitable doyen of Conservative American Catholicism, Mother Angelica of the Annunciation, Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration, went to her eternal reward. The last fifteen years of her life she was incapacitated by a series of strokes that removed her from her television career and public view, but the impact she had on American Catholicism during her heyday, from the mid 1980’s until her health crisis in 2001, is immeasurable. Certainly no woman and probably no American priest or prelate has had the impact of shaping Catholicism in the United States that Mother Angelica exercised.
Born Rita Rizzo in 1923 in Canton Ohio, Mother Angelica was the product of a broken home. Her mother worked hard to support herself and Rita but most of her younger years were lived in extreme poverty. As a young girl of 16 she had a religious experience that involved a cure from a mysterious abdominal ailment. Under the guidance of Rhonda Wise, a Canton “mystic and stigmatic” who played a role in Rizzo’s cure, she sought out a religious vocation and entered the Monastery of Poor Clare nuns in Cleveland in 1944 at the age of 21. Mother Angelica always said that she felt no draw to marriage and family life, most likely as a result of the dysfunction in her own family or origin. Those candidates who come from unhappy family systems often have difficulty adjusting to the demands of community life but right from the beginning, the young Sister Angelica was more a leader than simply a member of the community. As a novice she was selected to be one of the Cleveland nuns to make a new foundation in her hometown of Canton and she always cherished a dream of founding a monastery of her own where she would be abbess.
While still a novice she was injured in a domestic accident causing persistent back pain and requiring her to wear a leg brace the remainder of her life.
From the beginning she was anxious to establish her own monastery and in 1957, only four years after he final vows and at the age of 34 she took leadership for a proposed monastery in the diocese of Mobile Alabama. For six years she worked hard to gather the funds to purchase property and build her monastery, which opened in 1962.
1962 was the year that the Second Vatican Council opened and Mother Angelica and her nuns were quick to embrace the Council and its reforms. They were among the first to go into a modified habit, pray the Office in English, and relax the rules of Enclosure (cloister) that govern cloistered nuns. A strong advocate of exercise and healthy lifestyle, among her innovations was to install a swimming pool for the nuns in the monastery gardens. She invited and encouraged the various communities of Religious Sisters in the area to come and make use of the pool on their days off. Partially as a means of raising funds and partially as a publicity tool for her nuns, Mother Angelica also began to write religious pamphlets explaining Catholic doctrines and practices. These were, for the most part, well written and while traditionally pious in their outlook, hardly reflected the more strident ideology of later years. She also began taping the conferences she gave her nuns and a market was found for these tapes among a larger lay audience. In 1972 she wrote her first book and also began taping a weekly radio show. This, in turn, led to many requests for her to speak at conferences and assemblies across the United States which, despite her a being cloistered religious, she accepted. During a visit to Chicago to give a speech, she was invited to tour a Baptist-owned television station and it gave her the idea to start a Catholic network of her own—EWTN (Eternal World Television Network).
I think it was the television experience that dramatically altered her course. The station was initially a small operation run out of the monastery garage, but it began to grow quickly in popularity. And as it grew, it required more and more capital to sustain itself. Mother Angelica and her nuns borrowed considerable sums of money to finance the work and as the loans came due there were a number of financial crises. It was here, I think, that Mother Angelica realized that the most conservative wing of lay Catholics would be her most generous financial base and she began to pander to that audience as she moved from a voice of main-line American Catholicism to the right-wing. This was the early eighties. It was Reagan America. The American Bishops, appointees of the Justice and Peace Pope, Paul VI, had just written a pastoral letter condemning American participation in the Arms Race. They were writing a pastoral letter on economics that questioned American commitment to Free Market capitalism. They were planning a pastoral letter on women. At the same time, the ground beneath the Church was shifting as Pope John Paul II began to distance himself from the course set by Paul VI and Vatican II. The bishops, for the most part liberal, were out on a limb and Mother decided to saw it off.
It was an opportune time—the authority of the hierarchical or institutional Church in the United States was crumbling. The American religious system is Congregationalism and Americans have never understood or trusted Bishops. American Catholics have had a sense of the universal Church and of their local parish community but the diocesan level has always seemed an expensive and unnecessary layer of authority. The papacy is what sets us apart from our Protestant neighbors and gives us a Catholic identity but bishops have been seen as nothing more than sort of local lieutenants of the Vatican. In the early eighties as John Paul II carved a new—and far more conservative path for the Church, the bishops lost evem this credibility as local representatives of a Pope whose ideas they were often not quick to embrace. Moreover, the changes in the Church since Vatican II, particularly the Liturgical changes, had eroded the somewhat monolithic authority of the Church that existed before the Council. As many priests and most religious dropped wearing distinctive dress and living a very distinct lifestyle, laity began to feel more free to express their opinions and differences about matters ecclesiastical.
This perhaps provides the context for Mother Angelica’s battle with Cardinal Mahoney over his 1997 Pastoral Letter: Gather Faithfully Together: A Guide for Sunday Mass in which the Cardinal outlined his goals for liturgical reform in his diocese for the upcoming millennium. The document is eminently sound doctrinally but, at the same time, was “full speed ahead” with the liturgical development of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar years. Most upsetting to conservatives was its embracing of cultural diversity and encouragement that the parish celebrations of the Liturgy reflect the wide variety of cultures of the Catholics of Los Angeles. Americans struggle with cultural diversity—our “melting pot” mythology wants immigrants to lose their distinctive identities within a generation or two and become “Americans.” Cardinal Mahoney’s letter put the Church somewhat on the side of the multicultural and immigrant population contrary to contemporary political wisdom.
By this time, many Catholics had been pushed to their limit of tolerance with Liturgical change and Mother Angelica led the charge against the Cardinal and his letter. Much like today’s Republican nominee presumptive, Mother’s anger gave voice to the anger and frustration of the Catholic Right. It was a tsunami of anger and vindictiveness as Mother Angelica and her network gave voice to a segment of the Catholic population that had for a quarter-century felt powerless as the Mass (and the Church, and the Leave it to Beaver America) they knew was slipping through their fingers. It was the Reagan years, the Newt Gringrich era.
Even though Mother Angelica had a popular following among the Catholics in the pews, it is never a good idea to take on a Cardinal Archbishop. You don’t win a pissing contest with a guy in a red silk dress. The other American bishops recognized in the challenge to Mahoney’s authority a challenge to their own authority in their dioceses and while they may not have agreed with the Cardinal, the boys stood together. Moreover, as powerful connections as Mother Angelica had in Rome, they were insignificant compared to the Cardinal. As far as Rome went, it was a draw with the Cardinal holding an Ace. But even that was remarkable—had the Cardinal played his hand differently he could have crushed the nun from Alabama. For some reason he chose not to. It is always foolish to leave a wounded animal.
Where it played to Mother Angelica to have her spat with Mahoney is that it drew attention and donations to her work.
Christmas Eve 1993 Mother Angelica and her community of nuns return to wearing the pre-Vatican II habit with some minor adjustments, claiming that it was in response of obedience to the Church and as an example for other religious to return to their traditional habits. This was a brilliant marketing move both in terms of financial support and vocations. It was never clear where the “Church” said that the religious should return to their pre-conciliar robes. About the same time the nuns began broadcasting a daily Mass from their monastery chapel. At the insistence of the local bishop, the Mass was celebrated according to the approved 1970 Rite, but still with considerable amounts of Latin and pre-conciliar ceremonial. People began flocking to her Irondale Alabama monastery and her liturgical adaptations began to be copied in many more conservative parishes, becoming somewhat the “gold standard” for the “Reform of the Reform” of the Roman Mass. More and more places saw two distinct styles of liturgy as some parishes embraced the Mahoney model and others the Mother Angelica liturgy.
One of the customs that grew up in the Irondale monastery was the “Mother Angelica dip”—a quick genuflection by the communicant before standing and receiving the Eucharist. The rubrics call for a “sign of respect” for the Blessed Sacrament by the standing recipient but say the appropriate sign is a bow—the “dip” became a badge for those who preferred the return to a more traditional liturgy. While in the late 90’s the “dip” was becoming an all but universal custom, it is rarely seen anymore since the Mother Angelica disappeared from EWTN and the public eye.
In 1999 Mother Angelica opened her new monastery and Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. Built at the cost of just under $50,000,000, it was allegedly funded by five private donors including Catholic philanthropist Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza. It really was the crowning achievement of a long career.
Mother’s disappearance from the public view created a challenge for her EWTN network. Critics referred to it as EWTN: Elderly Woman Talking Nonsense, but the fact of the matter is that it was the presence of the wimpled and veiled acerbic old bag that drew viewers. Viewership fell off drastically and the station had to cut back both personnel and programming. While the situation seems to have stabilized these past few years, there was an open niche for someone who is more Catholic than the Pope to be the public voice that undermines the bishops and take up the mantle of the alternative magisterium. Enter Michael Voris.
Voris lacked both the capital to establish a traditional television broadcast operation and the dramatic costuming of a Poor Clare nun, but he has worked well with what he has. The Internet provides him with a new form of television broadcasting that is only beginning to grow in popularity. And his attacks on various Catholic hierarchs from Archbishop Vigneron to Cardinal Dolan are giving a public voice to the anger and frustration of the Catholic Right. Voris has been very careful not to go after the Pope which has disappointed his more radical aficionados but which is very wise politically as that would give the bishops a tool with which to attack—and destroy—him.
It is not that I want to accuse Michael Voris of insincerity but I think that he, like Mother Angelica, is more a businessperson, an opportunist if you will, than an ideologue. Voris was away from the Church for much of his adult life and his return and embrace of that vitriolic Catholicism that helped the Nun from Irondale succeed coincided with her disappearance and the founding and rise of his Media work with the decline of her television station. Voris had tried to develop an independent television production company, Concept Communications LLC, before his retun to the faith but was unsuccessful. His relative success with his current company, Saint Michael Media is only because of its appeal to the krazies who miss Mother Angelica and have transferred their allegiance to the new kid on the block.
Whether it be a Television Nun or an Internet telejournalist, we need the leadership of the Church to distinguish between authentic magisterial voice and independent commentators and make sure that the Catholic in the pews knows which is which. A big part of the problem, I believe, is that our bishops have yet to find credibility as leaders. They are fighting two and a quarter centuries of episcopal leadership that their congregants have never understood or appreciated but we need bishops who are strong, loving, and wise. That means, of course, the current crop has almost all to go.