December 21, 2005,
Think a book about a nun is not for you? Think again. In Raymond Arroyo has written a compelling, funny, brutally honest look at a poor kid from Canton, Ohio who had a remarkably painful childhood who would become a multimedia pioneer and cloistered nun. How? Why? Huh? He gets into all that in his one-of-a-kind biography of Mother Angelica, the sister behind the world's biggest religious broadcaster.
Arroyo recently talked to NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about the book and the Mother Angelica in his life.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Just before your book came out you and yours fled your New Orleans home, which was in Hurricane Katrina's path. How is your family doing?
Raymond Arroyo: On the whole fine. But the dislocation living away from your home, friends, and family takes an emotional toll. It's the little things that remind you how far away you are from home. Like when one of the boys asks for his costumes, or the toy horse that used to sit in the corner of his room... our emotions are still very raw all these months later.
Lopez: How do your kids cope with something so devastating? Do the older boys understand what is happening yet?
Arroyo: My oldest son certainly understands. He's six and very bright. He puts on a brave face, but there are moments sometimes when I am putting him to bed when he quietly asks to go home. Those are the moments that run through you like a sharp knife. What do you say? You try to be as honest as you can. My two-year-old knows we are not home, but it affects him differently. He can't communicate his sense of loss, but he does often ask to go to his grandparent's house. Thankfully, we'll be home for Christmas, so he can go there and be with them again.
Lopez: So the lady whose bio you've written put you up I guess that means she thinks you did a decent job?
Arroyo: When Katrina hit we had nowhere to go. We were just driving north, away from New Orleans. Mother Angelica, being a Catholic nun with some knowledge of families on the run, who can find no room at any inn was very gracious. She has a beautiful guesthouse near her monastery that she made available to us. It was definitely no stable. Mother and the sisters were quite good to us. But I wouldn't presume to consider her kindness a book review though I think she does appreciate the book.
Lopez: I get the feeling Mother Angelica would tell you if she didn't like it, in no uncertain terms. Am I right? She seems like Sister Straight Talk.
Arroyo: The fact that she didn't hurl the book at me shortly after presentation is a clear sign that she was pleased. The nuns tell me she's laughed at certain sections of the book and has gotten tons of mail from people who didn't realize what she went through to raise this huge media empire. The personal story of struggle and triumph against incredible odds is really something.
Lopez: It was really Mother Angelica who roped you into moving to Irondale, Alabama oh so many years ago to be her newsguy at EWTN, wasn't it? It certainly wasn't the location it's the middle of nowhere (no offense to people who live there). What was it about her?
Arroyo: From the first time I met Mother Angelica there was this chemistry. I had gone to scenic Irondale to interview Mother for a profile piece I was writing in 1995. And from that very first meeting there was this hilarious, earthy, edge to her that I found very appealing. Conversing with her was like chatting with my grandmother. Nothing was ever held back. I think it's the Italian thing. We're both paisans and are very direct, shall we say outspoken people. When she asked me to start her news division how could I resist?
Lopez: Speaking of Irondale: From the outside, Mother Angelica seems a bit nuts. Nothing about EWTN really should have worked out, right? She put radio towers in ridiculous places. She was moving into Protestantville, Alabama. What drove her there?
Arroyo: The improbability of her succeeding is what I think makes the story so fascinating. From the very beginning this woman was disadvantaged. She was a poor child of divorce who was crippled, had diabetes, no college education, no broadcast experience, and was practically broke yet this woman, relying on little more than God's inspiration built an enormous media organization. Today her network reaches more than 100 millions homes on television and millions via shortwave, AM/FM Radio, and now podcasts. Not bad for a little nun who everyone thought was destined for failure.
The location where she established the network demonstrates her reliance on inspiration. She came to Birmingham to found a contemplative monastery to pray for the racial situation in the south. Mother Angelica was talking about this monastery in the early 50s long before the civil-rights movement got underway. She followed that inspiration, built the monastery, eventually built a television studio in her garage, and the rest is history.
Lopez: Why did it work?
Arroyo: It worked because Mother Angelica was willing to take risks most would shy away from. She would sign satellite deals without having the money, order equipment worth millions when she was already in debt, and kept pressing forward. She believed that this was something God wanted. And she did it for Him. As she told me during an interview "Working for the Kingdom of God is my responsibility. Money is His responsibility." She trusted God to provide what was needed at every turn, and by gum he came through for her.
Lopez: How successful is EWTN?
Arroyo: EWTN is a marvel in the sense that it is the only network that is 100-percent donor supported. PBS is underwritten by the government, some of the Protestant networks sell their air time for funds, but EWTN is entirely donor based by design. Mother Angelica wanted her network to be reliant on what she called "God's Providence." Again, she felt if God wants it to survive it will. But she was very insistent that trust funds or investments shouldn't prop it up. She wanted the people to support it. And amazingly, every month they send in their donations and the network continues on...
In terms of success, it is rare that anything on television can actually change a life. TV viewing is normally a passive, mindless occupation. But I can tell you from what I heard during my book tour, the viewers of EWTN have been profoundly changed by the programming. Some are off of drugs today, reconciled with their families, strengthened in their faith because of watching Mother Angelica's network and often, her program. That is a great success, particularly in today's environment. But in sheer business terms, EWTN continues to grow and it has enormous penetration on cable all over the U.S. and the world.
Lopez:. EWTN is just a part of what Mother Angelica did, though what does she consider her greatest contribution and to what? Is she contributing to evangelization? To communications? To...?
Arroyo: Remember Mother Angelica is a cloistered nun. That is her first vocation. Her primary focus is souls and helping those who are hurting; people like the ones she knew on the hard streets of Canton Ohio as a girl. The television network was merely a means of reaching those souls. Certainly she has been one of the most successful communicators in the Catholic Church and the network she birthed will go on. But Mother saw her witness, her reliance on Divine Providence as her greatest contribution to the Church. And considering the unlikely and long reaching success she has had, perhaps she's right.
Lopez: Is Mother Angelica a feminist?
Arroyo: She would bristle if anyone described her as such, due to the negative connotation of the word. But I think she is certainly a Christian feminist as defined by John Paul the Second. She is a woman who recognized her role in the church and deliberately moved forward to fulfill the mission she felt called to. In life we need both a father and a mother the Church is no different. Angelica brought a wonderful feminine genius to the Church in America; a caring spunk that drew eyes and hearts to her. As you can read in the book, not all the boys inside the Church were entirely pleased with this little nun. Despite their calls for female power in the Church, I find it interested that the moment a powerful woman stood up and moved the masses, these same Church leaders wanted to put a muzzle on her.
Arroyo: I think Mssrs. Robertson and Turner's notoriety came more from their flamboyant statements and political entanglements than from their founding television networks. Mother Angelica was never interested in politics. She was focused on the matters of the heart and the soul the lasting things that truly matter. I wouldn't worry about how well known she is today. Holy Catholic nuns have a way of sticking around long after the rest of us are gone.
Lopez: Why would anyone who has little interest in nuns or religion want to read your book?
Arroyo: Because it is a truly universal story of an overlooked child who through tenacity and faith, raised an empire and brought hope to millions. There is something of the nativity in Mother Angelica's story. She may very well be, as Lee Iacocca called her: "the patron saint of CEOs." Her struggle to create her network, despite onerous opposition and personal handicaps, makes this a gripping tale. It is for anyone who has been overlooked, anyone who has been told you can't, anyone who has been told your not good enough. Mother Angelica is proof that we are not limited by other's perceptions and that God sometimes calls the most unlikely people to great things.
Lopez: You originally had "To Confound the Wise" in mind for your title, didn't you? Who are the wise men she confounded?
Arroyo: They weren't all men. And a few of their names started with "Bishop."
Lopez: Did Mother Angelica ever want to be a priest? I mean wouldn't anyone in her position? Don't priests just get more respect?
Arroyo: Not these days. Mother never aspired to the priesthood. She repeatedly defended the Church's tradition of restricting the priesthood to women. She often said, "Would you want to confess your sins to a woman? It'd be all over town by sundown." Mother reached more people and changed more lives than any ten priests have in their lifetimes. She lived her station in life to the fullest and that was more than enough.
Lopez: What's Christmas mean to the Arroyos this year?
Arroyo: It has refocused us on the true meaning of Christmas. A great light has come to the world at a time when we need it most. With the loss of our home and all the turmoil of the last few months Christmas will be a great comfort this year. We are all of us going home for the first time since August. To be with our extended family, to go to Mass at our parish, to share time with each other will be great gifts. These are the only gifts that mean anything when all is said and done. We'll just cherish them a bit more this year I suspect.