I had the honor and the pleasure of editing the first “major” book by Mother Angelica (written with Christine Allison), called Mother Angelica’s Answers Not Promises (1987). I was an editor at Harper & Row Publishers (now HarperCollins) at the time. It was the only Catholic book I did while at the company, because another division, Harper San Francisco, was supposed to handle such books. In this case, however, the agent thought the “liberationist” orientation out on the Left Coast was wrong for Mother, whereas I – one of the few conservative Catholics in New York publishing – was the right man for the job.
I spent a few happy days with Mother in Irondale, Alabama, and later we had some lovely, early morning phone conversations together: she at her monastery and I in my New York office. Those talks were supposed to be about the book, but they were mostly about my life in Christ.
In those days I was an early riser and would get into the office in Midtown Manhattan ahead of everybody else – I’m talking before 7AM – and Mother Angelica knew this and would call to chat.
“Tell me what you’re doing now, Brad.”
“Having my fourth cup of coffee.”
She’d ask about my wife (pregnant for the first time), she wanted to know what other book projects I was working on, and she was fascinated by the range of subjects we covered: from biography to sailing to politics, and whatever else we thought we could sell. But she was also concerned about the troubles I was having convincing my colleagues that political discourse should also include conservatism.
I told her that every conservative book I proposed got the same response: “We want to do conservative books, Brad, but not this one. . .”
Rita Antoinette Rizzo was a tough-minded, saintly woman. We hit it off from the start, in part because we were both Buckeyes by birth. The best Midwesterners are straightforward folks who know how to work hard, and she certainly learned that lesson early on.
“Be persistent,” she advised.
She sure was, although it was never, ever apparent to me exactly how this little woman managed to build the world’s largest Catholic television network. Hard work and persistence were certainly part of it, but the globe – which the Eternal Word Television Network now covers – is fairly littered with the “remains” of people and enterprises that tried their best and worked their hardest.
So I was (and remain) convinced that angels guided this woman. She had the same conviction, which is why she named her monastery Our Lady of the Angels. How else could she go from day to day, month to month, year after year, and decade after decade never knowing if her apostolate would survive let alone thrive?
But what I remember most was a conversation I had with her at the monastery – the last face-to-face meeting we had. It was just Mother and me. She held my hand, and for the umpteenth time, it seemed, she wanted to know how I was doing. Now I don’t suppose she thought of me all that often, but she was the sort of person (and I think this is a characteristic of saintly people) who was completely focused on you when you were in her thoughts or sitting next to her on a sofa, as I was at that moment.
“What troubles you out there?” she asked, meaning the world out there.
“Sex,” I admitted.
She nodded. Adultery wasn’t my problem, she understood, just the pervasiveness of sexual imagery in American life: the constant barrage of various media proclaiming vice as virtue.
“It’s not easy being a man, is it?”
I allowed as how I had no basis for comparison, but also that I didn’t think it was so hard being a man that a fellow couldn’t do it right if he prayed hard.
“You should write a book about that,” she said, and a dozen years later I did.
One of the sisters entered the room we were in to say that the taxi had arrived to take me to the airport, and I should get a move on, because my plane was leaving in less than an hour.
But Mother said: “Wait a little while yet.”
I’m not going to quote her exactly, because what then passed between us was just between us, but she told me that nothing would ever be more important to my salvation than the sanctity of my marriage. Her experience as a child of divorce gave her special sensitivity and insight into the beauty of lifelong marriage and its ineffable benefits for husband, wife, and children.
And I got to the airport late, although the plane was delayed, and this was in the days when (and in a place where) they had no problem opening the cabin door to let a late arriver board.
The gate agent said: “Rough day?”
“No,” I said, “it’s been a great day – that’s why I’m late. I am stressed though, because I was sure I’d missed the flight.”
“I know just the thing for that,” she said, and bumped me up to first class.
And on the very relaxing fight to LaGuardia I thought about what Mother Angelica had told me. I had been utterly serious three years earlier in vowing fidelity to my bride, but now I felt a deepening conviction: not just till death, but that death is preferable to divorce.
For that and much more, Mother, I thank you.
Note: Mother Angelica’s Answers Not Promises will be reissued in a new edition by EWTN in June.