Catholic evangelism – the remarkable success story
The power of the media to influence behaviour and dull consciences has been all too tragically evident in the events that have recently shaken Britain as well as America. Violence, cruelty, perversion and vulgarity pour into homes throughout the Western world, through the printed medium, and most especially through television screens and radio waves. However, it need not be so. Those very same instruments that penetrate the home impacting the individual so directly, can, of course, be used to help form a healthy conscience, to awaken a desire for the good, to educate, inform and build up. In fact, those same media, when put to the service of the Gospel, can be tremendously effective tools of evangelization. This is what a contemplative nun knew all too well when she stepped into a small Protestant television station in Chicago, on a spring-filled afternoon in 1978, and let out a poignant prayer: ‘Lord, I gotta have one of these.’
It was not too long after1961, when Franciscan Abbess Mother Angelica founded a monastery in Birmingham, Alabama – the heart of the Bible belt in southern United States – that she began giving conferences on the Scriptures to friends of the community. Her simple, straightforward style and practical approach were very popular and soon led to speaking engagements throughout the country. In time, she began to put these thoughts and reflections in writing, producing small booklets printed by the nuns themselves, and distributed gratuitously far and wide. Fully aware of the positive impact of these booklets in people’s lives and of the spiritual deprivation of so many, it is not wonder that the small size and modest resources of the UHF Channel 38 in Chicago awakened in Mother Angelica a desire to utilize the great potential that television offered for reaching souls. Having no set plan in mind, she videotaped one of her conferences and sent it to the Christian Broadcast Network. As a reply she received an order for 60 additional episodes. The Franciscan abbess’s unlikely television career had been launched.
To fulfil the commission, Mother Angelica hired the facilities of a local television station in Birmingham, as always financed by friends and supporters. However, when its management would not reconsider plans to broadcast a blasphemous film about Christ, the resolute nun communicated her decision to discontinue using their services. To the manager’s ‘There’s no other studio in one hundred miles. You need me!’ came her undaunted reply: ‘I don’t need you; I only need God! I’ll build my own television studio!’ Thus was born EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network. And in that very brief and impassioned dialogue were already contained the fundaments upon which would be built the largest Catholic media network in the globe: a zeal for Christ, his Church and his flock, and an unswerving, child-like trust in Divine Providence – for the nun, of course, had no funds and no experience in television.
Back in the monastery, a construction crew that had been laying the base for a garage was told to augment its size – this would no longer be a garage; it would be a television studio. This was November 1978, and the studio was built, some of the southern Baptist bricklayers staying on to eventually become veteran television producers still with the network. However, while turning out videos was the immediate goal, Mother Angelica and her community would eventually apply for an FC broadcast license and order a satellite dish that would enable them to broadcast programmes themselves, thus guaranteeing a more frequent use of the programming they were producing. The license was received in 1981, and after the facilities were blessed by Silvio Cardinal Oddi, of the Roman Curia, EWTN sent out its first satellite transmission, in 15 August 1981, to be carried by cable systems throughout America.
Considering the EWTN of today – seven satellite signals reaching all five continents with 24/7 hours of television and radio programming, a global shortwave radio station penetrating the jungles of the Amazon and the remotest villages of India, an award-winning website (www.ewtn.com), all operated by a staff of nearly 300 – one may be tempted to think that, here, careful planning and budgeting has produced admirable results. Nothing could be further from reality.
From that first impetus of zeal, the history of the network has been a series of leaps taken in faith, step by step, sustained by prayer. There are no five-year plans, no budgets, no projections. When a need is identified, steps are taken to meet it, trusting that God will provide, for neither are there any invested funds or shares, advertising or fund raising drives. The network, whose monthly operational costs hover around $2,300,000, is entirely financed by the generous support of its viewers and benefactors. In turn, the network offers its services entirely free of cost. This system, bewildering to any individual with a minimal business sense, is in some ways a curious extension into the media world of the application of the vow of Poverty taken by consecrated religious, such as Mother Angelica and her community. Trust in Divine Providence for one’s needs, and be generous. God is never outdone in generosity, and will never refuse one who trusts in him in total self-abandonment.
Though Mother Angelica is retired for some years, and is now convalescing from a stroke suffered on Christmas Eve 2001, the traditions and modus operandi she established are maintained by those who now direct the network, loath, of course, to change anything that has proven so successful.
What the donations one the one hand, and the prayers on the other, turn out, are quality television and radio programmes that are primarily geared toward teaching the Faith. While covering a variety of formats – documentaries, phone-in chat shows, dramas, educational series, news, music, programmes for children and youth – all have in common a religious base. There is also a fair serving of prayer and worship every day, including a live daily Mass.
EWTN has been present in the UK, Ireland, and all of Europe since April 2000, with reach extending from Iceland into the Middle East. Although the channel is not yet available on SKY, awaiting Divine Providence for the funds necessary to be there, it is available free of monthly cost from a less popular satellite (HotBird4), with an 80 cm dish and a digital receiver. SKY subscribers, however, can listen to EWTN’s Radio service on EPG #897. To support this area of EWTN’s work a charity has been established in the UK – St Clare Media Ltd, which, among other things, seeks to increase programming content directly relevant to its European viewers.
On occasion of EWTN’s 20th anniversary, Mother Angelica expressed her hopes that people, when considering the network, would reflect not on what had been accomplished, but rather, on how it had been so, namely, ‘how it is God works.’ After all, that is the very raison d’être of EWTN.