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Raymond Arroyo
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Papal Visit
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Mother Angelica, the 'Mrs. Fixit' of Catholicism
WSJ: The No-Nonsense Network
The No-Nonsense Network
The Wall Street Journal

By Christopher Willcox
September 6, 2005; Page D10

Rita Antoinette Rizzo could not have imagined her improbable future when, as a little girl with a Buster Brown haircut, she sat on the corner of Liberty and 11th Streetin Canton, Ohio, conversing with prostitutes and gangsters.

Many years later she would recall the scene: "I couldn't have been more than four or five, and my grandfather didn't want me in the [his] saloon. He gave me a small beer with a big collar on it. I had four or five pretzels, and he said, 'Go outside and sit on the curb and enjoy yourself.' So I'm out there on the curb drinking this beer and eating pretzels when the Salvation Army shows up. Well, they're praying all kinds of psalms in front of me and praying for my salvation. They must have been shocked to see this kid drinking beer. I remember yelling up to my grandfather, 'There's a big band down here.'"

The making of Mother Angelica commenced at that curb, with the convergence of gritty realism and God. Although she is arguably the most influential American Catholic of our time, she is not as widely recognized outside Catholic circles as some of the theologians who appear on network TV when a pope dies or is elected. They speak mainly for themselves and the elites for whom they write and lecture. She speaks to and for millions, having parlayed a $200 investment in printing equipment 25 years ago into the largest religious media empire on earth, with 105 million television viewers world-wide.

Now a 24-hour cable operation, the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) is an inspirational and didactic mix of religious news, panel discussions, masses, homilies and popular pieties. Not bad for a cloistered nun broadcasting from Birmingham, Ala. In Raymond Arroyo's entertaining "Mother Angelica," she emerges as a daring entrepreneur who really did do it all for God and as a traditionalist who has felt the need to challenge the "progressive" wing of the American Catholic Church. For all her accomplishments, though, she is never far from her Canton roots, whether she is taking a call from a viewer or kibitzing with cardinals at the Vatican.

It's a very American story, filled with lucky breaks (miracles in pious parlance), setbacks, tenacity, courage and a large measure of church politics, which may surpass even academic politics in sheer viciousness. If Mr. Arroyo's narrative occasionally reads like blood sport, Mother Angelica comes across as the genuine character she seems to be on air -- funny, garrulous and irreverent toward just about everybody but Jesus, Mary and the pope.

Mr. Arroyo focuses chiefly on her homespun efforts to uphold the teaching authority (or magisterium) of her church. For the uninitiated, this quest may sound quixotic, but for Mother Angelica it has clearly been urgent and necessary. Throughout her long TV ministry (at 82, she now appears mostly in reruns), Mother Angelica was at great pains to right the balance of the American church, which she believed to be in the thrall of a liberal bureaucracy working for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This is the same crowd that tried to ban the bomb when Ronald Reagan was fighting the Cold War. These days some of its members like to equate, morally, the death penalty and abortion, as if to catch the church out in a doctrinal double standard. As it happens, a cardinal who later become the current pope, Benedict XVI, once drew a careful distinction between the two. (According to church doctrine, the death penalty may, on occasion, be debatable; abortion is never so.)

In her various battles, Mother Angelica has had the strong backing of the Vatican and of conservative American prelates. Both have protected her whenever she has, so to speak, stepped in it. In one memorable episode, from the late 1990s, she tangled with Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles over what she considered his insufficiently faithful rendering of Catholic teaching on the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist. She mentioned her concerns on the air, and the cardinal reacted with something less than magnanimity.

Indeed, he began a campaign of complaint, demanded an apology (which proved insufficient) and evoked canon law as a curb on the station's range of opinion. That move, the first of several attempts at interference from American bishops, would haunt EWTN and force Mother Angelica to turn her broadcasting operation over to a lay board. Better conservative laymen than the tender mercies of the church bureaucrats, she reasoned.

Mr. Arroyo is not convinced that the bishops were actually planning a coup, but he clearly approves of her decision. Indeed, he approves of most of her decisions. Since he is an employee of EWTN, serving as its news director, his approbation is not unexpected. Still, he is a solid journalist and his account makes it pretty clear that Mother Angelica is both a tough nut and something of a diva under her wimple. It's no accident that she found a way to run a show-business medium from a cloister and found the nerve to offend some of the church's most celebrated figures.

Milwaukee's Archbishop Rembert Weakland, for instance -- who famously backed every progressive cause before being driven from office over an "inappropriate relationship" with a man -- appears several times in Mr. Arroyo's account, always in high dudgeon over the outspoken nun. He and like-minded churchmen speak of the need for greater participation by women in church councils. But when a woman actually does something big, they pronounce her out of order.

That Mother Angelica has done something big is indisputable. Her station has made her a living icon for orthodox Catholics and strengthened them for the great battles she has always predicted would come. "God likes to do big things with little things," was the way she described the origin of her television ministry. God did well when he turned to a little thing like Mother Angelica.

Mr. Willcox is a writer in Ridgefield, Conn.