Thursday, March 12, 2015

Raymond Arroyo is Coming to Town: Glimpses and Context

Even though I gave up posting on Facebook for most of Lent so far, I've recently started to weaken, and I have begun checking Notifications occasionally. I'm glad I did check today, because I saw a notice that Fr. Jeffrey Keyes, pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Church in Newark, CA, a half hour drive from where I live in San Jose, has arranged for yet another in a series of widely known Catholics to speak at his parish.

On May 1 at 7:30, Raymond Arroyo, author of five New York Times best sellers, and news director and lead anchor at Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), is coming to St. Edward's to speak on the topic, "Signs of Hope -- Padre Pio, Mother Angelica, John Paul II and other Modern Day Heroes."



In honor of Raymond Arroyo's upcoming appearance in Newark, I'm posting an article about Arroyo here that I wrote in 2006 after a phone interview with him.

During the interview, Arroyo spoke about how he came to work at EWTN, and about his then-recent experience in the previous August of losing his house near New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ten days after the birth of his daughter and at the start of his book's publicity tour. He also spoke about how his biography of Mother Angelica somehow made it to the New York Times bestseller list in spite of its being eclipsed by breaking news, and how life lessons he learned from Mother Angelica helped him get through the ups and downs of it all.

In 1996, EWTN founder Mother Angelica recruited Raymond Arroyo to come to EWTN to establish its news department. EWTN beams Catholic TV programming in both English and Spanish via satellite all over the world from of out-of-the-way Irondale, Alabama.




I had first-hand experience of the reach of the network when I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2005 and met one of the priests from EWTN, Father Joseph Mary, MVFA, a friar of the order of men that Mother Angelica founded to spiritually support the network, called the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. During a layover in the Amsterdam airport, Father Joseph Mary was recognized by a Filipino couple who were also passing through, and they asked me to take a photo of them with him. And in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, I was deeply moved by seeing some beleaguered Palestinian Catholics, who were suffering even then back nine years ago, and how much more so now, who eagerly came up to talk with Fr. Joseph Mary because they recognized him from seeing him celebrating Mass on the network. "What did they say to you?" I asked Fr. Joseph later. He said that they told him, "EWTN gives us hope."


Raymond Arroyo published a biography nine years ago about the network’s founder, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, the abbess of a cloistered community of Poor Clare nuns. This spunky, outspoken, nun from Cleveland, Ohio, who was born Rita Rizzo in 1923, is known to millions of cable TV viewers as Mother Angelica. As the story goes, in 1986, Mother Angelica was a 58 year old cloistered nun in a monastery she founded in Alabama, who walked with crutches because of crippled feet and a twisted spine, and who had no broadcast experience, and only $200 in the bank, when she launched what turned out to be a Catholic media empire from a studio built on a spot that she had originally marked out for a garage.

The biography chronicles with surprising frankness her run ins with the American bishops who were seeking to establish a cable network of their own at the same time and who were displeased with one representative called “her type of theology.” Mother for her part was dismayed by the bishops’ programming that time after time emphasized dissent from traditional Church doctrines. The book describes a long battle with LA’s Cardinal Archbishop Roger Mahony about what Mother Angelica saw as his watering down of the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

One reader of the book, Hilary Rojo, who directed the pilgrimage that I took to Israel, wrote me in an email from Loma Linda, CA, that she was shocked “at the revelation of truth. In the past, these types of exposes were only put in writing after the people involved in the conflict had died.”

What I discovered by reading this book is that EWTN is a shining witness to the ability of the Church’s true doctrine to triumph in the middle of a time when in many cases even the Church’s bishops had been misled and heresy had seemingly taken over. Mother Angelica’s book is a reaffirmation of the truth that if God wants a work to be done, He gives the ones He calls the power they need to accomplish His work.

“God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” 1 Corinthians 1:27.

Mother Angelica is not the only cloistered nun who was called to do great things for His Church. Raymond Arroyo aptly compares her at one point to the great doctor of the Chuch St. Teresa of Avila. In both cases, these cloistered women (in what Mother Angelica called “the wrong state in life”) were able to found religious orders and lead people to holiness in the middle of times of darkness and moral laxity.

Arroyo’s book is titled aptly enough, Mother Angelica: A Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles.

EWTN 25th Anniversary Family Celebration in San Francisco

I first came in contact with Raymond Arroyo and Mother Angelica's biography on January 28 and 29 of 2006, when EWTN sponsored a 25th Anniversary Family Celebration at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. Many viewers from California and points further away flocked to see their favorite EWTN personalities. Arroyo gave a side-splitting talk about Mother Angelica and his book about her, replacing his usually more-sedate delivery as a newscaster with the rapid patter of a fast talking raconteur. But it also had its serious message mixed in with the jokes and patter.

"Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote the first encyclical about the nature of love. It’s the primordial creative power that moves the universe. Mother Angelica harnessed some of that energy. Mother Angelica said, 'I am convinced God is looking for dodoes. He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can’t be done, so they don’t do it. But a dodo doesn’t know it can’t be done. God uses dodoes.'

"Every major thing that God wanted her to do was preceded by suffering. When she started the network, she was 58 years old. She had diabetes. A twisted spine. You pay the cost to be the boss. She was following inspiration and the dictates of her spouse. The struggle. The cross. That’s her real story. Her life has become a parable. She wanted to reach people. She did what she did for love of souls, It was never about TV. For God’s sake, be a dodo!"

During a question and answer session after he talk about his book, I witnessed a telling interchange between Arroyo and a youthful looking great-grandmother from the audience that illustrated for me the easy, humorous, teasing way Arroyo has with women of all ages, which I'm sure he put to good use while interviewing Mother Angelica for the biography over a period of months.

Arroyo is a slender man with close cut black hair, very white skin, thick expressive black eyebrows, perfect teeth, and a 10,000 Watt personality. Think of a handsomer, more intelligent version of Pee Wee Herman in a very good suit. Others, including the Curt Jester have noticed the resemblance.

His questioner had long brown hair, a purple blouse, and a formidable personality of her own—which she exerted in trying to cajole Arroyo to tell her his age. Arroyo parried by exerting his own considerable charm and humor to try to pry her age out of her. He finally admitted to being 36, and the woman’s voice got softer.

She said, “You are very young, Raymond. But I am very impressed by what you have done at EWTN.” As she strolled away from the mike, he said, “I love you, darling” and applauded her retreating figure. Then he stopped and wagged his finger after her, “You never did tell me how old YOU were.”


One of My Visits to EWTN and the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament

I was serendipitously able to visit Alabama only because of a computer company acquisition. One morning I went into work at Cyclades, a start-up computer storage company in Newark, where I was working as a technical writer and found out that Cyclades had been acquired by a company named Avocent in Huntsville, AL. As the world turned, I was given the opportunity twice to fly to Alabama for training in their documentation processes. I would always delay my return so I could go to visit ETWN for the weekend.

Friday night June 2, 2006, I drove to Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) in Birmingham from 70 miles north in Huntsville, through heavy rain and thunderstorms part of the way.

Huntsville is where NASA builds space shuttles and then flies them to their launch locations piggy backed on a big jet.

Alabama starts getting prettier with rolling hills once you get south of Huntsville, which is comparatively nondescript. I was in Huntsville for training by the company that bought the Fremont CA company I worked for, so I stayed the weekend to visit EWTN and the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament.

The ordinariness of the EWTN grounds -- where the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word live and where the cloistered Poor Clare nuns of Perpetual Adoration that started the station under Mother Angelica used to live -- is an interesting contrast to the immense reach the station has.

It's also amazing that a cloistered nun could launch a world wide television network, as the story goes, with no broadcasting experience and $200 in the bank. Mother Angelica was originally inspired by how little it took to communicate to a huge audience when she went to a TV studio in Texas to tape one of her talks, which used to be aired on the same channel as the 700 Club.

As the EWTN news director, Raymond Arroyo, tells the story in his NY Times best selling bio of Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica said, "Lord, I've got to get me one of those." And so she did.

Located on a little campus in Irondale, north of the city of Birmingham, EWTN sees its mission is to show the beauties of the Catholic Church to the whole world and beams its programming in many languages from satellite dishes behind the station. The station covers all the major events in Rome, so that Catholics everywhere can feel more truly than ever before that they are "Roman Catholics." EWTN also has a mobile unit called Gabriel, after the archangel. Shortwave radio beams to where the TV satellite signals cannot reach.

The studios were locked up tight when I tried to get in after Evening Prayer in the chapel. Before leaving on my trip, I had tried over the Internet to sign up to see The World Over Live, but that show doesn't have a live audience.

I rang the bell, but nobody answered. Then I walked around to the back of the building chatting with one of several couples and individuals I met on the trip who said they moved to the area simply to be close to either EWTN or to the shrine. A blond middle-aged woman got out of her car in the back to go to work on the show. I greeted her and told her I had interviewed Raymond Arroyo and said I had been trying to get a hold of him to find out if I could come in and watch the show. I sent my card in with her, and she gave it to Arroyo, and then to my delight, he sent someone to bring me in.

And so it happened that I was an audience of one sitting in a chair about 6 feet away facing the set. When Arroyo came in, a slightly built man, kind of a handsomer, more intelligent version of Pee Wee Herman in a very good suit, he shook my hand and said, "We finally meet." And "You broke in, eh?"

I attribute my getting in to a few well-timed Hail Marys.

The first part of the show was taped, so Arroyo sat there watching himself do a series of quick reports on the Catholic news happening around the world, including a short about a women "priest" illicitly saying Mass in San Jose. He referred to the woman as "Father, or is it Mother? " so and so.

After that bit was over he told me he was bilocating (since he was sitting there watching himself). I said, "That's evidence of the high state of holiness you have achieved, Raymond." One cameraman laughed, and Arroyo went "Uh huh, Uh huh!" (All tongue in cheek of course.)

The rest of the show consisted of Arroyo interviewing the good bishop of Orlando about immigration, contrasting the National Council of Catholic Bishops' position about illegal aliens with a snippet from an earlier interview with Pat Buchanan who said these people are illegally taking over our country. The bishops are saying "these people" are Christ. If you ask me I'll tell you which side I'm on.

That night I stayed at Casa Maria, a large peaceful retreat center run by an order of sisters that was founded by Mother Angelica but broke away. (The story of the split between the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word and Mother Angelica is in the Arroyo book, but one of the sisters, friendly Puerto Rican Sister Ave Maria told me, "Reporters can write whatever they want, but what Arroyo wrote isn't accurate." Hmmm.)

The sisters are beautiful smiling women in full habits. I ran into them taking their large fluffy German Shepherd mix dog for a walk, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying ladders and bringing in supplies from WalMart. Sister Ave Maria posed for a photo for me wearing plastic goggles, a floppy straw hat, and an apron over her habit, armed with a bug sprayer pointed at a tree. What a cute photo that ought to be.

I met one young red headed sister, Sister Rita Marie from Boston and another young beatifically smiling sister, Sister Marie Francesca, from Mississippi, who told me she joined the order because the Holy Spirit hit her over the head with a 2 x 4.

The rooms at the center are big and modern and only cost $30 a night! What a bargain.

Saturday morning at 6 am I was in the Our Lady of the Angels chapel for Morning Prayer with the friars and then for the televised Mass at 7 a.m. As it turns out, I was in the back row on the side of the room far from the cameras, so the only time I was on TV was when I went to the front for Communion.

Later that day I went north to the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament. One tourist flier for the Cullman area said the shrine is the biggest tourist attraction in Alabama these days.

Part Two

Sunday, the Pentecost Mass at the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville Alabama ended with the cloistered nuns behind the gold leafed reredos (altar piece) singing in a high soprano like angels "Regina Coeli Laetare. Allelulia! Quia quem meruisti portare. Alleluia! Ressurexit sicut dixit. Alleluia!"

I cried. I love that hymn so much. But then I almost always cry in church.

Queen of Heaven rejoice.
He who you merited to bear.
Has risen as He said.

We won't be hearing it again until next Easter season.

Those of you who haven't read Raymond Arroyo's bio of Mother Angelica might not know that she built a 55 million dollar shrine to the Blessed Sacrament about 70 miles north of EWTN in the Alabama countryside. The shrine was paid for by five families, and it is gorgeous. Mother Angelica saw a vision of the child Jesus tell her to build him a temple and was puzzled because she had never heard of a Catholic temple. Then she saw an inscription at St. Peter's in Rome referring to St. Peter's basilica as a temple, so she understood better what was being asked of her. At first she tried to build it with simple materials but the donating families wanted only precious materials to honor the Blessed Sacrament, which EWTN believes is being dishonored in so many Catholic churches around the world.

You reach the shrine by driving along a winding country road lined with miles of white fences in the lush green Alabama countryside. At the end of the road is a large wrought iron gate topped by angels.

On the other side of the gate, you see what looks like a huge basilica with a vast open courtyard in front. The inside is all gold and marble, and on the altar is the second biggest monstrance in the world. (For those who don't know, a monstrance -- from the Latin "monstrare -- to show" -- is a stand made of precious materials and used to display the consecrated bread that is the Body and Blood of Christ.)

The shrine is now Alabama's biggest tourist attraction. Us orthodox Catholics see it as a powerful witness for what Pope John Paul II called the new evangelization, and it's powered by prayer.

Mother Angelica and her nuns are Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration and they take turns to pray constantly in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I got to share in Morning Prayer, Office of Readings, Daytime, Evening, and Night Prayer while I was there and to attend the Mass of Pentecost and say the Divine Mercy chaplet at the shrine.

Being the shy and retiring type, I walked up and introduced myself to Deacon Bill Steltemeyer, chairman of the EWTN board when I saw him in the entryway. I told him I had gotten in to see Raymond Arroyo's show the previous night even though they don't have an audience. And I told him that I had a feeling that the next thing was that I would be able to see Mother Angelica, He said it was impossible.

He told me she only gets out of bed around 11 a.m. and eats a very little, and then has to go back to bed because that uses up her energy. She continues to pray for the network, its viewers, and all the visitors. But, she has no memory, Deacon Bill said.

The owner of the St. Therese guest house where I stayed told me that Mother Angelica was singing at her 83rd birthday party last month, wearing a sombrero over her veil, but she is nearing the end of her life.

Raymond Arroyo told me in our interview a few months ago that Mother Angelica is joyful at this time in her life when she has barely anything to do with the network. His book tells how other sufferings in her life seemed to always precede success for the network, but these sufferings are different, he said. "How are they different?" I asked. "They are for her purification."

I hung around for a while thinking I was maybe going to beat the odds again and get in to see Mother Angelica like I had gotten in to see the World Over Live. I half-expected a summons to come from the cloister, but one never came. Can't trust those feelings all the time, I have to conclude.
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