Raymond Arroyo sits in a crowded theater watching a scene in the popular musical Hamilton where George Washington asks Alexander Hamilton to write his farewell address for him. The lyrics of the song reveal the closeness of the two American forefathers. The emotional scene causes Arroyo to burst into tears, reminded of his own goodbye and farewell address — his book Mother Angelica Her Grand Silence: The Last Years and Living Legacy (Image, 2016) — the final chapter of Mother Angelica’s life.
Most of us know Raymond Arroyo as EWTN’s news director and lead anchor. We’ve seen his dynamic in-depth interviews with Church leaders, celebrities, and politicians, but that was not how he began. In college Arroyo was a theater major at New York University studying under the acclaimed Stella Adler. After graduating, he segued into print journalism, landing a job with the Associated Press. He moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for Rowland Evans and Robert Novak as a columnist and reporter, and eventually became a Capitol Hill television correspondent. Arroyo says about his career, “It was a long journey. I didn’t go from Stella Adler to Mother Angelica immediately. It was a more circuitous route.”
Telling Mother Angelica’s story
That circuitous route brought him to Mother Angelica’s door when he agreed to interview Mother Angelica for a Crisis Magazine article.
“I didn’t have a clue as to who she was,” he says. “But when I did my research, I thought ‘Oh yes, this is a character. I absolutely will interview her. It would be a delight.’ And it ended up being just what I thought. She was just like my grandmother. We hit it off instantly. We had a connection.”
That connection led Mother Angelica to offer Arroyo a job in 1996 as news director at her network, Eternal Word Television Network. The two began a friendship that would last until her death. Arroyo says, “The relationship wasn’t always smooth, but the connection was immediate, and incredible.”
Arroyo sometimes co-hosted Mother Angelica Live where their bond was easily apparent.
“It’s hard to put a finger on what makes on-air relationships like that work, but it did,” he says. “I would say the on-air person and the fun that we had was a result of that closeness. There was sort of a special bond between us; that she could talk to me about anything. We were playmates and always had a good time together. It was a nice relationship.”
Their close relationship encouraged Arroyo to ask Mother Angelica if he could write her biography. She agreed with one stipulation, warning Arroyo that she would wish him 40 years in purgatory if he sugarcoated her life. Conducting interviews from 1999 to 2001, Arroyo delved into the fascinating life of Mother Angelica, from her childhood in Canton, Ohio, to the sudden and secret entering into religious life, the founding of a new order, and the beginnings of EWTN. Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles was published in 2005 (Doubleday).
The biography was a huge weight on Arroyo’s shoulders. He says, “I had an obligation to public record and to history to impart as much of the story as needed by the public and to impart it with truthfulness. That’s not always easy. It’s a burden.”
Arroyo saw the danger in whitewashing Mother Angelica’s life.
“You lose the humanity of the person. You lose what makes them human, which is their flaws, their foibles, their anger, their frustration. And she wanted people to be aware that holiness is possible for everyone, even this broken girl from Canton, Ohio, who was wounded by life and ignored and forgotten by people,” he says.
“God had a plan for her. And she was faithful enough to march along, imperfectly at times, with lacking some of the natural strengths that so many of us have, but she did it with great faith and commitment to what he was leading her to.”
God was leading her to silent suffering in the last decade of her life. In 2000 she retired as head of EWTN. The next year Mother Angelica experienced a series of strokes that severely restricted her speech. Other health setbacks and injuries confined her to her cell. Mother Angelica, the opinionated, spunky nun, lost her voice.
“On the surface it doesn’t even make sense,” Arroyo says. “I asked her many times because, just like everybody else, I fear suffering. None of us want to let go of ourselves, our autonomy, our voices. But she said, ‘There is a great blessing to being treated by the Father the way he treated his Son.’ It’s a deeply profound spiritual statement earned through acceptance of a lot of pain, but that’s how she saw it.”
This pain and suffering and Mother Angelica’s response to God’s will is the subject of Arroyo’s book, Mother Angelica Her Grand Silence. Arroyo says, “It is the conclusion of her biography, but really it is a guide to living.”
The book has been transformative for many facing end-of-life situations.
“God used all of that pain in her life to bring about incredible blessings, to transform people around the world, including those closest to her,” Arroyo explains. “And that is at the heart of this story. Her nuns put it beautifully, ‘It’s the economy of God where he takes something that the world sees as worthless and turns it into a treasure.’ And that’s what happened here. Her spiritual fruits are everywhere — in the heart of those who watched her, of those who encountered her, and certainly in her sisters who carry her legacy on most directly.”
On Easter Sunday 2016, Mother Angelica’s suffering came to an end. After 92 full years of life, she died at her Alabama monastery surrounded by her devoted sisters. Her death was difficult for Arroyo, who says, “We were close. I wasn’t just her biographer. I certainly feel her in spirit, but the loss of her presence is acutely felt. I feel blessed to have known her and to have been so close to her for so long.”
Using what Mother taught him
Arroyo continues his work at EWTN, reflecting the spirit of Mother Angelica especially during his interviews with high-profile figures, notably Pope Benedict XVI, President George W. Bush, Mel Gibson, and Jerry Lewis. His says his interviews are successful because of what Mother Angelica taught Arroyo throughout his career.
“What I always strive to do is to pull out one facet of the personality, or some big new information that you’ve never seen before, and you do that by creating an atmosphere that is comfortable for your interview and a place where they feel as if they can tell you those things,” Arroyo says. “So a lot of that is you building a relationship with them. And being in the present moment. And that — Mother taught me.”
That was one of the many lessons that Mother Angelica passed on to Arroyo over the years. Her example can be applied to the age of social media where the dangers of narcissistic pursuits jeopardizes everyone in the public eye, including Catholics.
“There is a good lesson to those who are attempting to engage social media, or media at large today: Mother teaches that you have to root this in a contemplative life,” Arroyo says. “It has to be rooted in something other than you and your audience. That’s what I think made her successful ultimately.
“Mother had a natural storytelling ability. She was really funny, she had her own gifts, but the thing that made her most accessible, the thing that drew her to people was her pain, her suffering, and her deep awareness of what God wanted from her in that moment.”
Living in the moment is a philosophy that Arroyo fully embraces.
“I wait for the next inspiration, and then I charge at it. Mother Angelica gave me the confidence to do things that I had never done before, and then the ability to sort of run at them, even when I was unsure of whether I could actually finish these things,” he says.
“But more often than not, the things you’re called to, you actually do have the possibility within you. You do have the gifts to complete, but fear gets in the way. She has disarmed fear for me, and that has been a wonderful gift.”
With that gift, Arroyo has moved into the world of children’s literature with the release of his Will Wilder series. The adventure series is a response to fill a great void.
“Traveling around and talking to thousands of school kids all across the country has given me such a sense of what’s needed not only in kids’ literature but in society,” Arroyo says. “These kids are hungry for great stories; they want to be challenged and uplifted.”
In order to spotlight great stories and promote literacy, Arroyo began the web site Storyented (Storyented.com) where readers engage in a monthly book club and have an opportunity to send in questions to authors.
Arroyo will continue publishing his Will Wilder series among other projects in the pipeline. His latest book is Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017).
“Lives well lived, whether they be fictional or real, we need to hear. We need it for survival. And we crave it as human beings. And that’s the peace that I took from Mother and try to extend on,” he says. “She was a storyteller, and she tried to bring hope to people in very dark moments. I feel my own calling in that area. Different way. Different approach. But with the same spunk, determination, and humor.”