Thursday, September 01, 2016

Teaching Silently, Reaching the World Through a Hidden Life of Suffering: An Interview with Raymond Arroyo on Mother Angelica Her Grand Silence

A shorter version of this article was published August 31 at Homiletic and Pastoral Review

Even if you don’t watch Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), you have quite probably heard about Mother Angela, the feisty Italian-American cloistered nun from Canton, Ohio, who in 1981at the age of 58launched what quite improbably turned out to be a world-wide TV, radio, and print media network from a monastery in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama.

Mother Angelica died on Easter on March 27 of this year at the age of 92, and her death occasioned an outpouring of remembrances about her life, both from those who knew her personally and from many of the millions who encountered her through the network she founded. This unusual woman was hated by many because she represented what they believed to be an outmoded type of Catholicism and was loved by many others who came to think of her as a saint.
Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict both praised her. Even Pope Francis knows about her. When Pope Francis was flying to Cuba on February 12 of this year, he offered prayers for Mother Angelica, and he asked for her prayers in return. Then at a general audience on March 30, a few days after she died, when the pope was asked by ETWN Rome bureau staffers to say a prayer for her soul, he pointed to the sky and said, She’s in heaven.” 

"She's in Heaven!"
 The widespread attention to Mother Angelica’s death is notable in part because she has been out of the public eye for almost fifteen years. The only way most people have been able to see or hear her has been on re-runs on EWTN TV and radio. She resigned from running the network in 2000. After her resignation, she continued to appear on her show, "Mother Angelica Live," for a while, even after a stroke in September 2001 paralyzed one side of her face.

After the stroke in September 2001, Mother said, “I’ve never had in all my life such an awareness that God was choosing me to help people. This is to bring people to a new reality that suffering is brought by God to make us holy.”

The Pirate Nun Transforms the Heart of a Sinner, With God’s Love

One particularly striking story of how—even when she looked ridiculous in some people’s eyes—Mother Angelica’s words were still capable of capturing people’s hearts came from a man named Paul, who told the following story in a video titled, "Desire of the Everlasting Hills," which I came across after Mother Angelica died. 

Paul had been an international model, had a lot of money, and, deplorably, thousands of lovers. He had moved from New York to a home in California with a boyfriend named Jeff, while remaining promiscuous. One afternoon he was watching TV “after a hard night running around at the bars, and I came across this image, ... this nun with a patch over her eye and distorted face, and a complete old fashioned habit.” He called out, “Jeff, Jeff, you’ve got to come and look. It’s a pirate nun!”

“We both mocked her and laughed at her. But,” Paul continued, “as he left the room and I was about to change the channel, she said something so intelligent, real and honest; it really struck me, ‘God created you and I [sic] to be happy in this life and the next. He cares for you. He watches your every move. There is no one that loves you can do that.’”

Paul started watching her show regularly, hiding it from his boyfriend like a dirty secret. Eventually he returned to the sacraments and embraced a chaste life. He concluded his story by saying, “Some of my most euphoric moments was when I was with beautiful and famous people in penthouses overlooking the spectacular skyline of New York City and I have got to tell you, that happiness, that euphoria that would have lasted me a lifetime pales next to when I am taking the body and blood of our Lord in Church at Mass.” 
Mother Angelica had a second stroke on Christmas Eve of 2001 that almost killed her and pretty much put an end to her on-air appearances. She lost most of her ability to communicate, and she spent most of the ensuing years in her cloister. 

Raymond Arroyo, who is the EWTN news director and anchor of the weekly show “World Over Live,” has done a lot to keep her image in front of the public during the last fifteen years by his books and talks. As Mother Angelica’s biographer and friend, Arroyo is one of the people who knew her best. Between 2005 and 2010, he published a series of New York Times best-selling books on Mother Angelica.

First he published her authorized biography Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles in 2005. That first biography was based on a long series of deeply personal interviews Arroyo had with Mother at her monastery between 1999 and 2001, which ended just before the Christmas Eve stroke that took her out of the public eye.

In 2007, Arroyo published a second book, Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality. A third book, Mother Angelica's Private and Pithy Lessons from the Scriptures, which was derived from a series of audio tapes from a Bible study series Mother gave, followed in 2008. Then in 2010, in his introduction to The Prayers and Personal Devotions of Mother Angelica, he wrote that the fourth book completed the cycle of Mother Angelica works.

Arroyo recently released a final book about her legacy. We talked about the book in a phone interview, which is the subject of this article.

Raymond Arroyo Interview

RTSullivan: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for Homiletic and Pastoral Review. I know this is a busy time for you. You are doing promotions for two books, not only for Mother Angelica: Her Grand Silence but also for a young people’s adventure story you wrote called Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls. Thank you for squeezing this in.

By the way, how are these books being received?

They’ve been so warmly received. I have to tell you I am overwhelmed by the letters and the emails, the people who’ve come up at book signings−their reactions to the two books have just been incredible. Obviously the reactions are different. But they are both being read by adults as well as young people−which is humbling and wonderful.

I didn’t anticipate these two books being in the marketplace at the same time. But Mother and God orchestrated it that way, so I kind of had to go with it.

In many ways telling Mother Angelica’s story, the first biography and, of course, this final episode and chapter of her biography, gave me the confidence to tell big stories, to realize I had the capability of telling a sweeping saga. That’s really what the Wilder series is. It’s fiction, but it’s about a family with a special boy who has his own gifts. It’s an adventure series, but there is a lot of reality and truth in those pages as well.

So Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls is the first in a series?

It is the first in a series. [The second book, Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders, is being released March 7, 2017.-Ed] It’s a middle grade adventure series and also a family saga. We’re unlocking the secrets of this Wilder family as we go on.

Genesis of This Latest Mother Angelica Book

RTSullivan: Let’s come back to this latest book in your Mother Angelica series. In 2010, in your introduction to The Prayers and Personal Devotions of Mother Angelica, you wrote that the fourth book completed the cycle of Mother Angelica works.

What made you decide to extend the cycle and write Mother Angelica: Her Grand Silence: The Last Years and Living Legacy?

I never intended to do another Mother Angelica book. I saw the Prayers and Personal Devotions as a capstone of the series. However, I had promised Mother and I promised my publisher that I would tell the full story of her life. So it was always envisioned that I would update the biography.

I anticipated like so many, even those nearest Mother, that it was going to be a matter of a year, or two, or three years, given the stroke, given her health, we just didn’t know how long she would survive. But as God would have it, and her great tenacity, and the care of the sisters, all conspired to keep her with us for many many years beyond the stroke, a good fifteen years.

The rich story that presented itself−that I knew I had to tellthere was no way it would fit as an addenda. My publisher said there’s too much information. You’re going to have to release this as a separate book. That’s how the sequel was born.

It’s fitting that it be the conclusion of her biography. It’s also a tribute to her. It’s my farewell to herand I think a meditation, curiously, on the power of the end of a life and the power of suffering and pain, which is what Mother’s whole life testifies to, I think.

Living in the Present Moment

RTSullivan: She seemed to know a lot more about the value of suffering than a lot of people ever hear about. I want to ask you some more questions about that later.

You might remember I interviewed you after the first biography came out, and that you spoke about how much Mother Angelica taught you about the need to live in the present moment after you lost your New Orleans’ home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and after your publicity tour for the first biography seemed to be irretrievably derailed because of breaking news.

Where do you think Mother Angelica got that idea about living in the present moment? Do you still find it relevant today?

Oh, very much so. In fact, in this new book, Mother Angelica Her Grand Silence, I went to great pains to write a chapter about our relationship. And I say pains because it did not come easily, it was something I resisted at first. In it, I captured just that idea that one of the great lessons she gave me was how to live in the present moment.

Mother had a life that was so riddled with pains and unexpected suffering that she had to learn to quickly adapt to those challenges and to embrace them as God would have her embrace them. On the far side of those she found such consolation, she found power, she found Jesus.

Watching her traverse tragedy and things none of us would wish upon ourselves or those we love, watching the way she handled them and embraced both the good times and the bad was such a lesson for me.

Absolutely, it’s relevant every moment of my life.

If it wasn’t for Mother, I don’t know how we would have survived not only Katrina, but my wife was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago. That was traumatic. There are awful things that just come into our livesamid the many blessings and wonderful things. You have to embrace both of them and live in them fully.

That’s what I think she was trying to impart. You can’t fantasize about the future, and you can’t anguish and relive the past. Guess what? We all get kicked around. There are horrible people in the world. You have to kind of move past them and move onto the next thing that God wants you to do.

People always ask me, “How can you go from covering live events, to working on a musical project, to writing a children’s book, to being a father . . .?” Well, that’s all living in the present moment. These inspirations come to me in the present moment, and I embrace and run after them in the present moment.

The way she explained it to me was, it doesn’t mean we can’t make plans, it doesn’t mean that we sort of run like a leaf blown in the wind. No. No. No. You have to make plans, you have to keep a schedule.

But, when things come at you, whether it’s an inspiration, it’s something wonderful, or it’s a tragedy, something you didn’t expect, a betrayal from a person you didn’t expect to turn on you, you embrace those moments as they happen, and, as she said, you try to be like Jesus in them. You fulfill the duties and responsibilities of that present moment. It keeps you rooted in the now so you’re fully present here.

You are not stuck in the past. Your mind isn’t worried and fretting and crying about the future. We have to stay here. This is the moment we are given. There are great lessons and gifts if you are willing and ready to embrace them. That’s what she was saying.

The Saving Value of Suffering

RTSullivan: I think that a lot of Catholics are not aware of a significant verse in Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which the Church interprets to mean that all of our sufferings can have immense value if we offer them up in union with Christ’s sufferings, for the salvation of the world.

“[I, Paul,] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church.”−Colossians 1:24

I have never heard a sermon on the saving power of suffering. I think, in a sense, Mother Angelica’s life could be viewed as a kind of sermon on the topic.

Do you agree? If so, what message about the salvific power of suffering do you think might belong in a sermon based on her life?

I couldn’t agree with you more. Mother was an apostle of Divine Providence, and she was an apostle of Redemptive Suffering. Those are her two great gifts, I think, to the Church and to the world. She taught about these two important issues throughout her entire life from when she was a young sister to when she could no longer speak.

What you get to see in this last book (and you get a front row seat on it I hope), is Mother Angelica’s full embrace in the present moment of God’s Providence. It was filled with pain and suffering, but she finds and brings much good out of it, because she is united with God. She is offering it up to Him.

That’s the lesson for us. This is a journey all of us will go on. We are not all going to build networks. We are not all going to see visions. But all of us in some way are going to have pain and suffering in our life. We are all going to face the final journey in this existence, and hopefully prepare ourselves for the next.

That’s what is at the heart of this book.

At a time when people wish to shove the frail elderly aside, to create laws that make it easier for us to send them to the next part of their journey before this one is completed, Mother Angelica stands as a counter-cultural witness and says, “No.” There is great value in this end of life. In fact, it may be the most richest and most important part of our life. No one should deprive that of another.

Where Did She Learn the Value of Suffering?

RTSullivan: Where do you think she learned this? Mother Angelica’s insights about suffering seem to parallel Pope Saint John Paul II’s teachings on the subject. I read her ideas clearly stated in one of her many little devotional books, “Healing Power of Suffering,” which you have also quoted. In 1984, Pope John Paul II published Salvici Doloris, which can be literally translated as “on saving suffering.”

Do you think Mother Angelica read Salvici Doloris?

Yes. Without a doubt, I’m sure she did. But you know that minibook you referenced was written in the seventies, so that was before John Paul came along.

Their lives were in parallel in many ways, you know. It was in October of 1978 when she was first was inspired to build the television network, and, of course, that was when he was elected Pope. And they both were these charismatic and amazing evangelists in our time.

They both in their later years faced great infirmity and lost the ability to speak that so characterized them. They both learned to teach in silence in some ways. I do see a parallel track for these two saintly figures. 

Mother Angelica After the Stoke That Silenced Hefr

Mother Angelica’s Sufferings and EWTN’s Success

RTSullivan: In your first biography, you gave many examples of how Mother Angelica understood the great value of suffering in the development of the network. You mentioned that when she was rendered almost speechless after the Christmas Eve stroke of 2001, that she told you that she knew it was for her purification. You wrote in her biography that she read St. John of the Cross.

Do you know if she knew of other great saints who taught about this topic? I wonder if she read about this doctrine in the writings of other saints.

She did, as a young nun. She read a lot of the lives of the saints, because she was so sickly for much of her early vocation. She was often in bed, or she couldn’t get up, with the back surgery and all. And at that time, I think she probably exhausted the monastery library of all the lives of the saints. She knew things about saints that I’d never heard. Not only did she understand, I think on an intuitive level, their thought, but she knew the personal side. This one was grumpy, that one was fat, this one was cross, this one had hangnails. She knew every little detail about them. She humanized them. And that was a great lesson to me when I wrote the first biography and when I wrote this sequel.

She threatened me with forty years in purgatory if I sugar-coated her life. The reason she did that is that she wanted people to identify with her failings and with her humanity. And so, I felt an obligation to just tell the story as it existed.

When I wrote her life story, as Mother would say, I wanted it to be nitty gritty. I wanted it to have the blood and guts in the story. These are not always happy tales. Every part of the journey is not marked by sweetness and light. But that was Mother’s story; that’s all of our stories, I think.

The Skirmishes of Mother Angelica

RTSullivan: I’d like to know your thoughts about Mother Angelica’s skirmishes with the liberalizing tendency in the Church in the 1980s and 1990s and whether those kinds of conflicts lessened in the 2000s and 2010s.

You wrote in the first biography about run-ins that she had with some American bishops, who were trying to launch a Catholic network of their own. Many of them expressed their distaste for what one priest called “her kind of theology.” It seems now that she won over the opposition, and that “her kind of theology” is now accepted.

In an amazing sequel, Pope Francis even asked for her prayers, and he even informally canonized her!

Did you add any more details about those kinds of battles she went through and their outcomes after the initial biography?

The [first] biography is pretty conclusive in those battles. She really did win all of them in my mind. The things she fought for, the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, the sacrality of the Mass, Latin in the Mass, what is now called the Extraordinary Form, those things were considered relics of another age, never to be seen again. Mother Angelica not only kept them alive, she popularized them. She put all those devotions in front of the eyes of the masses so they could see what they had been missing.

Remember that she had a titantic battle with her local bishop, Bishop David Foley, near the end of her active life. He didn’t want the Mass televised ad orientem, facing away from the people. The whole Bishops Conference basically said it’s up to him.

Well, I had to chuckle a little at her funeral because I saw Bishop Foley there on the altar. And I thought to myself, only Mother Angelica could pull this off. Not only did she get a Mass celebrated ad orientem, but it was broadcast on television, and an archbishop was celebrating it. Only Mother could have pulled that off. 
Tweet I sent of Mother Angelica's Ad Orientem Funeral Mass
What Did the Battles Cost Her?

RTSullivan: I’d like to find out more about the personal cost of Mother’s battles to defend the truth as she understood it. Mother was intransigent in her dealings with those who wanted to silence her or to change traditional Catholic doctrine. But at least one of your stories hints that at some level she must have found the conflict terrifying. You wrote about what is commonly called a “near-death experience” in 2001 in which Mother said she left her body three times and that when she came back she said she wasn’t afraid of death any more. I think it’s significant that she also mentioned she was no longer afraid of the bishops either! Psychologically she probably paid a big price.

Do you have any more new insights about her battle with some members of the Church hierarchy that you included in your new book? And about how those battles affected her?

Psychologically and physically, it was a great trial. It’s one thing when people from outside the Church come after somebody, but Mother was really fighting a two-pronged war, because she was fighting those outside the Church, and then she was fighting those inside the Church.

The stroke probably would not have happened if she hadn’t been under such stress and duress.

She was carrying a heavy load. She wasn’t a well woman. She wasn’t a physically vibrant woman. She had lot of health problems, bloated heart, crushing asthma. She had diabetes. She was crippled. There were a lot of things Mother suffered from that people just don’t realize when they saw the happy, smiling, funny nun on TV.

All of those battles I do think took a toll on her, without a doubt.

Mother Angelica’s Example of Female Empowerment

RTSullivan: Let’s talk about the role of women in the Church as exemplified by Mother Angelica’s life. I’d like to know your thoughts about this excerpt from an article at that was written by John L. Allen after Mother Angelica’s death: “Today there’s a great deal of ferment about how to promote leadership by women in the Church in ways that don’t involve ordination, a conversation Pope Francis himself has promoted. In a way, however, debating that question in the abstract seems silly, because we already have a classic, for-all-time example of female empowerment in Mother Angelica.”

What do you think of that?

He’s right. That’s a fair assessment. Both Mother Angelica and Mother Teresa were two of the most powerful people in the Catholic Church; they both happened to be women, and neither of them was ordained. 

Look, Mother had no use for political empowerment. She was not interested.
She was all about following God’s will. And for her, God’s will took her down this path. I think she became a great exemplar of faithfully living out God’s will. It wasn’t about power. It was about doing what you were called to do.

She had a great line she used to say, “People spend all their time trying to figure out what they are going to do for the world. The real question is, ‘What is God going to do−through you−for the world?’”

This was how she saw her role, what she was doing. It wasn’t about her. That is not only about female empowerment, it is about human empowerment. 

What Do People Need to Know About Mother’s Last Years?

What details that you may not have already mentioned about Mother Angelica’s contribution to the world and about her last years in silence do you think would be most relevant for readers to know?

I come across so many priests so many nuns who say they owe their vocation to Mother Angelica. She was a powerful witness. Many who have read this book said, “It has so enriched my work.”

This book teaches you how, even in distress and in the dark moments, God is still with you, and that you have to continue that zealous embrace of His will to the very end. That is part of ministry.

I think there are so many gifts in this last part of her story for people. The letters I’ve gotten have attested to the ways it has touched so many lives. I love that I was able to share not only how she touched lives all over the world (you read the first hand accounts of that in the book) but also about how she touched my life, how she changed my life.

You can see her transforming the lives of her nuns, millions of people around the world, as well as those of us who were closest to her. That’s the story of every religious, that’s the story of every priest, or it should be.

Mother Angelica got a twenty-year hall pass where she could make contact with the public at large, because God had this great mission for her. But in the last fifteen years, she became fully what she vowed to be at the first, which was cloistered nun. With silent prayer, hidden away and yet powerful, powerful results occur. That’s all due to that prayer and suffering.

That’s what this last story is about, the mystery of contemplative prayer, and the mystery of redemptive suffering. And how it all plays out through the story of this amazing, very humble, simple woman, who just followed where God led her.

What an honor to be able to tell that story.

Mother Angelica Her Grand Silence: The Last Years and Living Legacy. Raymond Arroyo. (New York: Image, 2016.)


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