Mother Mary Angelica, the nun millions of cable-equipped Catholics will be watching to keep up with Pope John Paul II on his U.S. visit, is not a woman given to lofty pronouncements. "I think God is running around looking for dodos, dum-dums who don't know it can't be done," is a fairly typical Mary Angelica statement. An explanation of her success as the founder of the nation's largest Catholic television network is equally simple: "I don't know I'm supposed to be nervous on television."
Mother Mary Angelica classifies herself as one of those energetic dum-dums, a poorly educated daughter of a broken home who first founded a convent outside Birmingham, Ala., and then led "a bunch of cloistered nuns who know nothing about television and only had a couple of hundred dollars" to create the Eternal Word Television Network in 1981. Her network now boasts 7 million viewers and expects to attract an additional 7 million or 8 million with daily 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. coverage of the pope's visit, available free to cable distributors as Eternal Word always is. (Cable systems in Rockville, Alexandria and several other Maryland and Virginia regions will carry it.)
"We will do everything from the motorcade to all the talks, up until he goes to bed," says Eternal Word's star from Irondale, Ala., where the network is based. "The commercial networks, I think, are going to get the trappings -- those who are controversial or dissenters. They're going to go for all the to-do. We're going for all the facts."
Gettingall the facts will cost $550,000, she says. The bill is being split between Eternal Word and the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA) in a first-time collaboration that marks a tacit recognition of Mother Mary Angelica by the American bishops who oversee CTNA.
"I think at the beginning there was some suspiciousness among the bishops as to what this was all about," says Frank Butler, president of the Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, an independent group that funnels money to Catholic charities. "There was concern that it might be an arch-conservative organization or might be providing an image of the church which was outmoded or outdated."
Butler says Mother Mary Angelica's early broadcasts did rely heavily on "reruns of Lassie" and were "very pious" -- excessively so, he thought. "It's gotten a bit more sophisticated," he says.
And increasingly successful. Eternal Word now produces between 50 and 60 percent of its shows, including the twice-a-week "Mother Angelica Live!" and on Sept. 1 the network began broadcasting 24 hours a day.
Andnow there's the coverage of the pope.
"Someone said, 'Mother, don't you think you should wait awhile between taking two such giant steps?' " remembers Mother Mary Angelica. "I said, 'No. If you don't take two giant steps at the same time, then you've got one foot in the air.' "
And,as she says often, "The Lord provides." She spends only 90 seconds twice a week asking for money from her viewers.
"I say, 'This network is brought to you by you, so put me between your gas and electric bills and we'll continue on.' That's all I say. We don't bring in a lot. We bring in enough to make ends meet. We're a Franciscan order, and St. Francis was a mendicant. He had such faith in the Lord that he went day to day, week to week, and I think most people in the world live that way."
The demands of running a network don't interfere with the contemplative Franciscan life, she says. The other nuns in the convent handle the mail and other behind-the-scenes work, and Mother Mary Angelica herself "hasn't had any problem," she says.
"I get up at 4 o'clock and pray. By the time I leave the chapel at 8, I've already prayed four hours. That's what I call my root time. I think without my root time, I couldn't do what I do."
Mother Mary Angelica began doing what she does more than 35 years ago. Her faith stirred when a severe stomach ailment inexplicably disappeared; she left her job as "chief flunky" at a ball bearing company in Canton, Ohio (where she had grown up as Rita Rizzo), to join a religious order. In 1962, after she fell on a soapy floor and hurt her back, she vowed to build a convent in the South if God allowed her to walk again. She can now walk, although with the aid of leg and back braces, and Our Lady of the Angels is flourishing. Her own mother joined the order and lived there until her death.
For now, Mother Mary Angelica and three other anchors (CTNA President Fr. Bernard R. Bonnot and two television professionals) are ensconced on a set in Raleigh, N.C., the temporary headquarters chosen for the papal coverage, while a reporter and photographer travel on the press plane. Mother Mary Angelica says she felt it her "duty" to anchor the show, rather than see the pope, whom she has already met once at a private mass. "We had a little chitchat afterwards. I would have loved to interview the Holy Father, but that's not allowable. Some you win, some you lose."
Those familiar with the TV nun have heard a variety of stories explaining how she first decided to venture beyond the small inspirational booklets she was printing and onto the airwaves, but there is general agreement that she recognized the importance of a medium others in the Catholic Church were missing.
"She has taught the bishops a lot," says Butler.
"I think the church made a bit of a mistake when Bishop Sheen got off television," Mother Mary Angelica says. "It dropped the ball. It should have put someone in his place immediately. When cable came along, we just sort of looked at it and said, 'Oh, well.' We just didn't get the significance of the media in the lives of our people and what a teaching tool it is for good or evil."
In the public mind, "Catholic" and "religious television" are not usually connected, a fact some attribute to the church's lack of foresight, others to the shape of the faith.
Says Sister Estelle Scully, coordinator of affiliates for the six-year-old CTNA, "I can only answer personally and not for CTNA, but one of the basic parts of the Catholic Church is participation, so for many years the church has said the parish is the basis for our religion. For other religious television, I think, it's a substitute for church. They get it on TV. Any child who went through Catholic school knows the first part of the mass you give to God and the second part of the mass God gives back to you in the communion, and it's hard to do that on TV."
CTNA focuses on distributing programming and using "teleconferencing" to link parishes and conferences across the country rather than creating original shows. Mother Mary Angelica is hoping to expand Eternal Word and perhaps move into radio, all the while retaining the personal bond with her viewers that she believes contributes to Eternal Word's success.
"I guess I'm a grandmother image," she says. "Kids don't have grandparents anymore."
And grandmothers are not supposed to be slick television performers.
"I just talk about Jesus, that's all I know," she says. "I've got three doctorates, but they're only honorary. I worked hard for my Fs in school. That's what amuses me. I think God must be laughing about those doctorates. My parents were divorced and life was rotten and when you're trying to survive you don't have time to know the capital of Iowa.