Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Thanks for the Memories, Mother Angelica (Part I: First Impressions)

"Cloistered nuns on television are without doubt the most ridiculous things that could happen. It just evolved.
Mother Angelica on 60 Minutes in 1984

“I don’t know what my ratings are. I just don’t think the Lord went around counting heads. One time He lost everybody. When He announced the Eucharist, He lost everybody. Then He looked at His apostles and said, Are you going to go away too? He wasn’t afraid to blow it all."–Mother Angelica in a 60 Minutes Interview with Morley Shafer, 1984

Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, abbess of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, and founder of EWTN, Eternal Word Television Network, in Alabama, died Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.

The first time I saw Mother Angelica was on a video that I borrowed from the library at Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Santa Clara, some time around 1990. One of the parishioners had recorded an appearance by the church’s saintly pastor, Father John. J. Sweeny, on the Mother Angelica Live Show. I knew that Mother Angelica founded a Catholic TV network called EWTN, that you could get it on cable, but I didn’t know anything else about her, and I never had watched EWTN before.

The show with Fr. Sweeny in it probably aired some time in the late 1980s. My first impression was that Mother Angelica was an odd character for a media celebrity. She was a portly old nun even back then, still wearing a habit (actually, a big plus in my mind, because it counteracted the memories of other Franciscan sisters I’d seen at a retreat house one time, who were "dancing the gifts” of bread and wine up to the altar wearing sweat shirts and blue jeans). On that show and on every other show I saw her in, Mother Angelica wore oversize glasses.

She was constantly sniffing her ever-running nose and swallowing. She wheezed a bit. She frequently paused to take sips from a big mug. She even seemed to burp, quietly, from time to time. She apparently had stomach problems, in addition to many other serious ailments; she has been quoted as saying she took a lot of Maalox.

She didn’t quite seem to be on top of the conversation that night. Fr. Sweeny started to tell the story of how he was assigned as pastor of Our Lady of Peace Church in 1969, about how he built a church and shrine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the outskirts of Santa Clara in the middle of pear orchards, and how the city had grown up around him with high-tech companies and hotels surrounding the thriving church.

Mother innocently derailed Fr. Sweeny's story by lamenting about building projects that eat up agricultural land, and his story never really got back on track. He had a lot of stories he could have told that night, about how he instituted Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist in 1976, how the church and even the rectory living room were full of homeless statues that other parishes had thrown out, how the parish attracted people who loved the reverence of the Masses there and the old devotions, the rosary processions, and the novenas, who lined up for hours at the confessionals that were open before every Mass, and who knelt happily to receive Communion from priests only at the altar rails.

There they were, I thought watching the show, these two obviously saintly people who loved the same things about the Church, mild Father Sweeny and brash Mother Angelica, but who were not quite able to make a connection.

I don’t think Father Sweeny ever got around to telling the part of his story about how he planned to build a giant aluminum statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the shrine, and how when the diocese made him shorten it to 32 feet, he then made up the difference but putting the statue on a 12 foot knoll near the church between the Yahoo headquarters building and highway 101. An image of the statue on its knoll did flash on the EWTN screen for a few moments during the show. Commuters can still see that statue of Our Lady with her motherly arms held out towards them on their way to and from work every day, although dear Fr. Sweeny has long since passed away and Yahoo has moved somewhere else.
Yahoo, Immaculate Heart of Mary Statue, and Highway 101, Santa Clara, CA
What the commuters used to see from 101 as they whizzed by Yahoo and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Statue at Our Lady of Peace parish
About Mother Angelica’s quirkiness, I thought, maybe she was having a bad night. But then, as I was writing this, I glanced at a video clip playing in a browser in another window on my computer which I’ve tuned to EWTN--where they are remembering Mother Angelica in non-stop programming. Mother was about 40 in the clip I caught just now, and she said, “If you go in front of the camera and can only say, ‘Ahh, ahh!’ in the Spirit, somebody out there’s going to love it.” That maybe was the clue I needed to understand her appeal.

She didn’t need to be a smooth professional. Since 1978, she had been doing the same thing. She knew all she had to do was obey her Spouse, get herself from the cloister to the studio on time, pray with all the staff before she went onstage for the unscripted show, trust the Spirit, and be her authentic Jesus-loving and people-loving self, in sickness and in health. In brisk middle age and tottering old age, she kept it up. And millions of somebodies out there did love it.

The Pirate Nun Who Kept Winning Souls for Christ and His Church
She kept on drawing souls to Christ and to the Church, even after a stroke in the year 2001 led to her having to wear an patch over one eye and left her with a twisted mouth and slurred speech. I just read a testimony today where a man tuned into EWTN to mock the comical looking "pirate nun" but ended up secretly listening to what she had to say instead. Eventually, he was led by what he heard from her to a complete conversion and healing of his heart and his life.

Like Pope John Paul II was doing at this point in his life during those years, she kept appearing in public even as age and disability deformed her. She only stopped appearing in public when another stroke took away her ability to speak.
Pope John Paul II and Mother Angelica in younger days. They were great admirers of each other.
Flash forward a few years from Fr. Sweeny's appearance in EWTN. One of his parishioners from Our Lady of Peace became a priest and professed member of the men's foundation that Mother founded before Fr. Sweeny's death, and Fr. Sweeny attended his ordination and profession where he took the name Miguel Marie. I saw Fr. Miguel Marie Soeherman today on EWTN officiating at the Divine Mercy chaplet that was prayed for Mother Angelica.

Fr. Miguel Marie in 2016
Fr. Miguel Marie in 2016

This is Part I of a series. See also Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

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