Catholic Spirituality,  Catholics Do What?,  Culture of Death,  Evangelization

The power of a single life

I’ve heard it said often enough that one has to be able to “afford” to be open to life, that only those people in the most fortunate and stable of circumstances (at least by human appearances), can welcome and successfully raise a productive member of society.

I don’t want to get into a game of “I’ll show you my (grocery bill) if you’ll show me yours,” but I’ve always found that to be an incredible claim.

And not just from a financial perspective, either.

We think our marriages must be perfect, our family lives stable and free from stress, our professional paths paved with certainty and security.

But I think it’s is a modern-day fairytale, this myth of the planned and neatly executed life.

When I think about great men and women who’ve charted new territory and changed history, more often than not, it seems, a little dirt digging produces interpersonal strife and suffering, in spades.

I’m thinking of Mozart. Of St. Catherine of Siena. Of Abraham Lincoln. Of Martin Luther King Jr.

And most recently, this week, I’m thinking of Mother Angelica, foundress of EWTN and known to the masses as the feisty pirate nun with a zinging wit and a deadpan delivery most stand up comics can only dream of nailing.

Born Rita Antoinette Rizo to a suicidally depressed and soon-to-be single mother in Canton, Ohio, the young would-be nun grew up in a toxic family environment in a home that swarmed, at times, with literal rats. Her father, an unemployed tailor who would eventually leave her mother, never wanted children.

baby mother

The religious sisters who taught at her parochial school offered her little in the way of support or comfort, and when her parents divorced when she was 6 years old, her position as a pariah seemed set in stone. She recalled of her childhood years that she was often cold, hungry, and more interested survival than in schoolwork.

Sounds like a great beginning, right?

And yet, this isn’t her Story. It was merely the first few scenes in what became a biopic spanning almost a century.

The television network she founded in the garage of her Poor Clare’s monastery grew into the largest Catholic network in the world, streaming 24 hour content to 144 countries and 230 million households. Numbers that make cable news networks salivate.


And the Church who’d failed her as a child, whose leaders sometimes found themselves at odds with the feisty nun with a penchant for orthodoxy and truth? It remained her greatest love.

From all appearances, her life ought to have ended in ignominy and miserable poverty. She struggled academically. Her mother was neglectful and ill. She had few adults rooting for her or invested in her success. She was only tangentially exposed to religion via her education, and she and her mother actually left the Church for the better part of a decade after a cruel experience in the confessional soured her to the Faith. Divorce was, back then, a damning sentence for the innocent child victims, who were not spared the scorn and cultural condemnation heaped upon their parents.

And yet, despite being saddled with these seemingly insurmountable handicaps, she created for herself a beautiful, productive, and wildly innovative life, and as a Catholic nun.

Or rather, she allowed Him to create with her and through her.

I wonder sometimes when I read about the great saints and scholars, masterful musicians and heroic physicians, how much of their greatness came not in spite of their humble and even horrific beginnings, but precisely because of them.

“For my power is made perfect in weakness,” Christ tells us through the Apostle Paul. And claw and clamber as we might to assert ourselves into position of strength and security, how often it is the weakest and least-likely ones He uses for His greatest work. Over and over again.

I’m not advocating for a life of poverty or abusive childhoods here. Just challenging the prevailing cultural notion of comfort and prosperity as the essential ingredients to a life worth living, a life worthy of being allowed to live.

We don’t know the value of a single human life, nor can we proclaim at the outset how or whether someone will turn out to be any good at all.

Because sometimes the universe throws a curveball, and a little Rita Rizzo, slumming it in dirty apartments with a mentally ill mother and a deadbeat dad nowhere to be found, grows up to be among the most influential women of the 20th century. And she does it without a trace of lipstick.

pirate nun

God has a great sense of comedic timing, too.

Mother Mary Angelica, pray for us. And rest in peace. I bet you’re having the best Easter ever.


  • Lisa Laverty

    Love this so much Jenny!! and love Mother Angelica. God works wonders in us his little children if we let him for sure and Mother Angelica is a shining example… Ha!! I adore that He brought her home on Easter Sunday.

  • AnneMarie

    Jenny, this is fantastic. I love how you not only touch on the beauty and goodness of Mother Angelica, but also mention that the rougher edges in her life did not define her whole story; that God was able to work through her in amazing ways. So hopeful, so inspiring, and such a good reminder of God’s powerful work in and through all circumstances!

  • Julie

    I’m so glad you highlighted Mother Angelica! She was an incredible person–if I could define her in a sentence it would be: “She trusted in God and plowed through her ministry based on that trust.” She reminds me of Blessed Mother Teresa by believing that the mission He gave her would happen. I loved her sense of humor too! She was a gem, polished by adversity, and brightened by her service to God. RIP, Mother–you truly deserve it!

  • Ari

    She reminded me of my feisty Italian grandmother. I have a gay, pot-smoking, atheist friend who loved to watch her. Nothing is impossible with God. May she rest in peace.

  • Jennifer

    Loved this perspective on Mother Angelica. It is a good reminder of God’s divine plan for each soul and the power of walking in his will. Thank you so much, Jenny, for all the good you do through sharing your gift of writing, as well as raising that beautiful family.

  • laura

    That was great! She is an inspiration to me and gives me hope for my kids who suffer from their fathers betrayal.
    May Mother Angelica rest in peace

  • Sr. Athens

    This indeed is great! Through this article I came to know more about Mother Angelica, her unglorious past which was redeemed by the Lord through her cooperation with grace.

  • jeanette

    “But I think it’s is a modern-day fairytale, this myth of the planned and neatly executed life.”

    Your statement here nails it exactly. Our idea of the “perfect life” is often at odds with God’s idea of the “perfect life” — the question is: which perfection are we striving for?

    here is a useful thought from Ecclesiastes 11:5:

    Just as you do not know how the life breath
    enters the human frame in the mother’s womb,
    So you do not know the work of God,
    who is working in everything.

    • Jean

      I don’t know about you, Jeanette, but over the decades my impression of what constitutes the “perfect life” has changed drastically. Realizing only God’s idea of such is perfect it’s somewhat of a relief to strive for his version. The more I grow and learn the more I have to say I knew less than I thought I did at times.

  • Cami

    I am an only child because a younger sibling was conceived at an inconvenient time. They were conceived during my parents’ divorce process. And the choice was made to not bring that child into the world. But I’m haunted by what could have been. A whole person is missing from my life. God had plans for that child. And only God knows what might have been if that baby had a chance in life. Mother Angelica’s story is a great reminder that having all your “ducks in a row” isn’t essential to raising a positively influential child.

    • Jean

      Cami, I am also a child conceived at an inconvenient time in my parent’s marriage, born and alive only because my Catholic father feared hell if he allowed my mother to abort me. How fragile our lives were at conception, both our mothers’ minds filled with murderous thoughts towards us. Whatever greater good they imagined could come out of ending our lives is still difficult for me to grasp, and just when I begin to think I understand it slips away from me. Perhaps your unmet sibling has spent all these years praying for you, interceding on your behalf, and one day you will meet and embrace with loving recognition. As Jeanette has quoted we do not always know how, but God does work in everything.

  • Shannon

    As always, beautifully written and centering. What a strong woman she was. Thank you, Jenny, for this tribute…such a needed reminder that God creates such beauty from our “fiat”.

  • Jean

    I tuned in to Mother Angelica’s program a number of times when we had a trial run of several cable channels. I believed her to be very down to earth, empathetic and approachable. She was the sort of Sister I would have loved to have visited with and learned from over the years. On the subject of her mother having left the church for the better part of a decade due to a cruel experience in the confessional – let me say again should anyone come up against that don’t give up – go elsewhere if need be but don’t allow your spiritual life to suffer due to a priest either having a bad day or being a difficult person.

  • Mrs. Kranti Farias, India

    I agree with you Jean. Let not the experience got out of a counsel of one priest destroy one’s morality or confidence in what really is the truth and, not to forget that God’s Mercy is always there but we have to turn to Him for it.

  • Rebecca McEvoy

    Thanks for this killer article Jenny! I didn’t know about Mother Angelica’s early life and it provides a whole new perspective for me on her life, contributions to the Church, and what the culture tells us about success.

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