Culture

A Year after Her Death, Mother Angelica’s Living Legacy

Her biographer testifies to her healing work and continues her efforts with his own hope-filled Will Wilder children’s books.

Mother Angelica, the founder of a world-ranging media operation, EWTN, has been dead for a year. But she’s still changing lives. Her biographer, Raymond Arroyo, can testify to it — as he witnesses to it with his own life.

Mother Angelica, who died last year on Easter, which was March 27, was the founder of a cloistered community of women and a trailblazing nun who had no business starting a television network in Birmingham, Ala., save for being convinced that God was telling her to. A native Ohioan, she had a tug on her heart to go south and do prayerfully urgent work for racial healing.

Today, the cable network she started still plays archives of her “live” show, which, whenever I catch it, is as relevant as it ever was. When I Google it, the first episode that pops up is one in which she’s talking about the lack of hope seemingly everywhere — in the world, in the home, in the workplace. Tell people they’re beautiful, she says. Because we so often don’t know. Don’t knock people down, give them hope. People need it — not false hope but trust in the love with which we were created.

Shortly after she died, Arroyo’s Mother Angelica Her Grand Silence: The Last Years and Living Legacy was published. He had previously written her biography, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles, in 2005. But the media network was not her whole life. And while strokes had her confined to a convent bed for the better part of a decade, these hidden years may have been her most powerful.

During those “silent years” — between 2004 and 2016 — Arroyo received “literally thousands of letters from people all over the world.” As he read them, he became convinced he had to convey these stories about the impact she was still having:

They didn’t meet her in the ’80s and ’90s, when she was freewheeling and laughing and telling jokes. They met her through re-runs and books, and they are meeting her now. It was her prayer, it was her sacrifice, that was almost magnifying the power of her message despite time, space, and disability. Who would have thought this disabled woman, who couldn’t really speak, would have a louder voice in her silence?

He attributes the fruits of her life — and death — to the richness of the contemplative life. That’s “the hidden gift of contemplatives,” he says, the seed and salt of “the mystery and beauty” of Mother Angelica’s life, one filled with graces and flourishes and successes unexplainable without reference to and orientation toward a Creator. “We don’t think about contemplatives, but this is their power, this is their work in action.”

Talking contemplation can seem ridiculous in our busy world, but it’s the stuff of creativity, a crucial ingredient of a thriving society. And so, too, the fruits are evident in Arroyo’s life. Host of EWTN’s news program The World Over — which turned 20 years old in September — he’s very much on top of politics and the culture. A husband and father, he also slaved away, during those Mother Angelica silent years, in a labor of love, burning the modern-day equivalent of midnight oil to create a character named Will Wilder in a town called Perilous Falls for a best-selling children’s book series. The Lost Staff of Wonders, the second Will Wilder adventure, was just released and has him traveling to schools and bookstores throughout the country. While giving away books to children who might not otherwise be reading, he introduces many young ones to the excitement and privilege of reading. Check Twitter (@RaymondArroyo) for some windows into the joy that an encounter with Will Wilder can bring.

Mother Angelica was a success in the world in the most unlikely ways. So it is when a soul is dedicated to the work of hope and eternity.

Some of the expressions of joy he sees are lights for a future of hope as boys and girls journey to this fictional world full of history and culture and faith and family, their hearts and minds expanding. Against the backdrop of a contemporary culture that so often offers only overwhelming despair and a seemingly inescapable sense of overload, Will Wilder offers hope; he helps with thinking and dreaming, community and adventure.

As Arroyo talks with me about the correlation between illiteracy and incarceration rates, and the free copies of Will Wilder that Random House has been giving way in some poor school districts, and some of the segregation he sees in these areas, I can’t help but think of what brought Mother Angelica to Birmingham in the first place. (The principal of St. Stephen’s School in New Orleans has testified that boys she’d never seen with books before can’t get enough of Will Wilder.) Her legacy continues in a healing of individual and cultural imaginations. Her work continues. Mother Angelica was a success in the world in the most unlikely ways. So it is when a soul is dedicated to the work of hope and eternity.

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