It was September 1987, and Pope John Paul II had just arrived in Los Angeles after traveling around the United States. The Pope was greeted in the City of Angels by a closed-door meeting with a group of progressive bishops who had a bone to pick with several Church traditions.
One of four chosen representatives, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, spoke to the pope about female ordination:
“Women seek…(a church) that teaches and shows by example the co-discipleship of the sexes as instruments of God’s kingdom. They seek a church where the gifts of women are equally accepted and appreciated...where the feminine is no longer subordinate but seen in a holistic mutuality with the masculine as forming the full image of the Divine,” he said.
Meanwhile in Alabama, a woman of the Church named Mother Angelica had just thrown her cable network, which reached more than 2 million homes at the time, into 24-hour coverage territory. During the 1987 papal trip, the EWTN Network took on the then-unprecedented task of live, unedited, constant coverage of the Holy Father’s visit.
And when word reached the spunky nun of the Milwaukee bishop’s remarks to the Pope during the trip, she couldn’t help but chime in with her opinion.
“Women in the priesthood, that’s just a power play, that’s ridiculous,” Mother Angelica said the next day.
“As it is women have more power in the Church than anybody. They built and run the schools. God has designed that men be priests, and we can’t afford to deny God his sovereign rights,” she said, as recalled in her biography by Raymond Arroyo.
If anyone has any doubts as to whether ordination is necessary for leadership and influence in the Church, they need look no further than the media mogul nun herself to be proven wrong, said Catholic talk show host and media consultant Teresa Tomeo.
“Not only was she a prominent international media personality, because of her work on air and her great shows, but she was a foundress of a major religious network and she was a CEO of that network while being on the air, which is something that few women in the secular world accomplish,” Tomeo told CNA.
“And here she is accomplishing this in the Catholic Church, which is supposedly so sexist and backward according to the world. She’s breaking barriers that these powerful women in secular media can’t even touch.”
In 1981, at a time when women were still struggling for places of prominence in the world of broadcasting, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation launched Eternal Word Television Network, which today transmits 24-hour-a-day programming to more than 264 million homes in 144 countries. What began with approximately 20 employees has now grown to nearly 400. The religious network broadcasts terrestrial and shortwave radio around the world, operates a religious goods catalog and publishes the National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency, among other publishing ventures.
She’s breaking barriers that these powerful women in secular media can’t even touch.
Besides founding EWTN, Mother Angelica is also credited with building a monastery, a shrine, and establishing two religious orders.
Mother Angelica passed away on March 27 after a lengthy struggle with the aftereffects of a stroke. She was 92 years old.
After her passing, the praises of Mother Angelica were sung from both the secular and Church media, with many recognizing her as a strong example of female leadership.
In his tribute, John Allen of Crux wrote:
“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.”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, remembered her as a “devout believer and media pioneer" in a statement following her death.
"Mother Angelica reflected the Gospel commission to go forth and make disciples of all nations, and like the best evangelists, she used the communications tools of her time to make this happen. She displayed a unique capacity for mission and showed the world once again the vital contribution of women religious," he said.
Her vigorous leadership and vision in a Church with all-male clergy came from her security in knowing her identity before God, Tomeo added.
“Bottom line is that she knew who she was in Christ, she knew that she was designed in the image and likeness of God, that we’re male and female, we’re equal but we’re different,” she said.
“And she knew that God has a special role for her, and that he chose her for a specific reason, and that you can do all things through Christ as St. Paul tells us.”
Mother Angelica doesn’t stand alone in the line of formidable female figures in the Church, either, Tomeo noted. She succeeded other spiritual giants like St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena, and is joined by other women in the contemporary world, who are working to make a difference in the Church.
For years to come, Mother Angelica will be remembered for her authenticity and punchy humor, and her ability to preach the Gospel with love, Tomeo added.
“She was funny, she always gave me hope that no matter how many mistakes any of us make, God is always going to allow us to come home,” she said.
“I think that we have just begun to unpack her wisdom. I think...for decades and centuries, she’s going to be seen as one of the greatest evangelists in America.”