Universe January 2002 Column
By David Alton
On explaining why he used more popular forms of music to convey Christian truths the founder of the Salvation Army, General Booth, asked why should the devil have all the good tunes?
In founding her Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Mother Angelica, was prompted by the same sort of impulse. Angered by the blasphemy in the film The Word, she decided to go into competition with Old Nick. Twenty years later her TV satellites and radio signals reach every continent; and she has certainly been giving the devil a run for his money.
During a brief visit to the United States I had the opportunity to visit EWTN’s studios in Birmingham, Alabama and to see the phenomenal success of a venture which has developed into a world wide ministry.
What struck me most was the sheer conviction and idealism of those who are devoted to spreading the message of the Church. It would be patronising and just plain wrong to write off EWTN as an off-shoot of tele-evangelism or as a TV station speaking only to an American audience.
True to its Catholic charism EWTN’s programming is universal and seeks to reflect the diversity of the Catholic tradition. Its Spanish services are widely seen throughout Latin America. It regularly uses programmes made in the UK or of British and Irish relevance. It recently screened programmes from the Lancashire shrine of Ladyewell; a musical pilgrimage from the Holy Land made by the Manchester-based musician, Marilla Ness; and documentaries about English Catholics, John Henry Newman, Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton and John Dryden. Its news programmes, teaching programmes, and especially its documentaries on pro-life questions, are of universal relevance. They have just made three programmes, as part of a new series, Heart of the Matter, which is being broadcast from London.
Contributors include Peter Garrett of Life, Ann Widdecombe MP, Dr. Tony Cole of the Catholic Doctors, Professor Neil Scolding, Luke Gormally, of the Linacre Centre, the Catholic writer, Daniel Johnson, and Joanna Bogle of the Guild of Catholic Writers. The programmes examine human cloning, the links between abortion and breast cancer and euthanasia. The emphasis which EWTN places on the sanctity of human life and the upholding of human dignity must make it unique.
Each month EWTN receives about 50,000 letters, many of which include financial help to run their services. As they have no commercial advertising and rely on Divine Providence for income that is probably just as well.
Mother Angelica, who is now in her seventies and recuperating after a second stroke which occurred on Christmas Eve, is a Franciscan Nun affiliated to the Poor Clares. An enclosed order, their ministry is based upon perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. She launched the station from a garage next to the convent and it has grown into a highly professional 24-hours a day broadcasting corporation, employing some 250 staff. Yet it has not lost its soul or its way. Mother Angelica does not run appeals for funds on air and simply insists that God will provide. I want to prove to people that His Providence can take care of us. In the world of broadcasting that must also be unique.
It has been a far from easy or painless story. Mother Angelica herself springs from suffering and adversity including a broken family and a father who rejected both her and her mother. She has also had to endure a lot of physical suffering. Perhaps that is why so many of the viewers who have watched her Mother Angelica Live broadcasts have been able to identify with her.
Curiously, Mother Angelica came to be mother to her own mother when Mae Gianfrancisco came to share the life of her daughter as a nun, becoming Sister Mary David.
Many other people lay and religious have gathered around her and I was particularly struck by the friendships and mutual support which EWTN’s staff give one another. This is not a broadcasting business more a spiritual community committed to living out gospel values. Many of them gather each morning for the community Mass which is broadcast by the station and which must give great comfort to the housebound and sick unable to get to a local church or to people living in remote places. While I was there I saw an e-mail which had arrived from a family living in one of the Gulf States who expressed their gratitude for their one point of contact with the Church. Isolated missionaries and aid workers living in remote parts of Africa and Asia have also found EWTN invaluable. It is also a wonderful resource for catechists, teachers, parents and parish priests. No Catholic school or presbytery should be without it. It is an indispensable asset.
EWTN’s programmes can also be listened to via their website (www.ewtn.com) and downloaded from the website’s Audio Library. The site is home to one of the largest collections of Church documents in the world, gives you access to Catholic news from around the world, and provides a response service to people who want to know more about the faith.
In Europe, TV transmissions come via Hot Bird TM4 and can be received via a small dish which costs about £200 to install. There are no subscription costs or monthly charges, no licence fees and no commercial advertisements. EWTN’s British wing is St. Clare’s Media (0208 653 3085, or firstname.lastname@example.org), who can arrange the installation. It might be an ideal gift to give your parish priest or parish school.
Mother Angelica has no secret agenda. She straightforwardly says that Our goal is to serve the Holy father and the church. By doing so we are doing God’s will. Our network is built on faith and sustained by prayer. She dislikes intently labels like liberal Catholic or conservative Catholic and simply asks I am orthodox in my beliefs is that so much of a crime? What’s conservative about a group of cloistered nuns erecting the first Catholic satellite operation in the world?
When St. Paul began his mission to spread the Christian gospel he sought out the places where the people gathered. That is what took him to the amphitheatre in Ephesus, to Agora in Athens and ultimately to his death in Rome. Who can doubt that if St. Paul were around today he would be heading for EWTN to learn about satellite dishes, web sites and radio signals. Mother Angelica says I’m just God’s donkey pulling this load for a while. No one should underestimate how heavy that burden has been or how, like the good donkeys that bore Mary to Bethlehem and Jesus to Jerusalem, she has succeeded in her task. As she now battles for life following her stroke, and an operation on her brain, her many admirers will be wishing her well.