Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Many Risks Of Rita Rizzo

(Thirty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 13, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 25: 14-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-Third Sunday 2005]

Her name was Rita Rizzo.

She was born in 1923 in a poor Italian neighborhood of Canton, Ohio—the only child in a very dysfunctional family. Her father was physically and verbally abusive, and eventually abandoned her (although he did seek reconciliation with her later in his life). Her mother was emotionally unstable and suffered from suicidal depressions. Other relatives were unkind and unsupportive, leading Rita to wonder why God would allow a little girl like her to grow up in such a miserable family.

Given the constant emotional stress, it’s not surprising that during these early years of her life she suffered from severe abdominal pain.

Although she went to Catholic school, Rita wasn’t especially religious, until she met a local mystic. Through the prayers of this woman—and the intercession of St. Therese, the Little Flower—her terrible stomach ailment completely disappeared.

She began to take the power of prayer seriously, and eventually discerned a call to the religious life. Despite the objections of her mother and other members of her family, she entered a Poor Clare Monastery in Cleveland.

After nine years in the cloister, she took her solemn vows—although her health was failing once again. In fact, her legs and back were so twisted at one point that she could hardly walk. To deal with the problem she was forced to wear a body cast. She begged God to allow her to walk again, and promised him that if he granted her this favor, she would build him a monastery in the southern part of the country. Her purpose would be to serve the poor black population living in that area.

Eventually she had back surgery, and her health greatly improved. So she followed through on her promise, and received permission to build a monastery down in Birmingham, Alabama. To pay for the building, believe it or not, she and her fellow sisters ended up going into the fishing lure business! (She got the idea from a magazine advertisement that she happened to see one day.)

And she was very successful. In fact, her talent as a businesswoman even got noticed by the people at Sports Illustrated, who gave her an award in 1961 for her “special contribution to a sport”.

As you might imagine, building a Catholic monastery in the deep south (especially one that would serve the black community) wasn’t very popular with some of the locals. So it came as no surprise when one of them literally took a shot at her—with a loaded gun—and barely missed.

Then came 1978: the year she walked into a TV studio out in Chicago. That’s when she received the inspiration to get one of her own. When she was told that the studio cost “only” $950,000, she responded, “Is that all? I want one of these.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the former Rita Rizzo is the woman we all know today as Mother Angelica.

I tell her story this morning because it ties in beautifully with the message of this Gospel parable from Matthew 25.

The parable is about the necessity of using our God-given gifts in this life to serve the Lord and our brothers and sisters. And I say “necessity” for a reason. As one of the footnotes in the New American Bible puts it, this parable reminds us that “Faithful use of one’s gifts will lead to participation in the kingdom, lazy inactivity to exclusion from it.”

In other words, heaven is on the line here!

But the underlying message in the story is that using one’s gifts faithfully involves taking risks—personal risks.

That was the difference between the first two servants and the third, was it not? The first two took risks in trading with the talents they had been given. The third took no risk at all, and out of fear buried his master’s money in the ground.

In order to do God’s will and follow his call in her life, Rita Rizzo/Mother Angelica took many risks. To enter the Poor Clare Monastery in Cleveland, for example, she risked losing whatever remaining support she had in her severely dysfunctional family. She also, no doubt, risked losing some of her personal friends. (That can easily happen when you enter religious life or the priesthood. Some of your more worldly friends may want nothing to do with you afterward.)

Time and time again—both before and after establishing EWTN—she risked failure as she attempted to carry out God’s plan as she understood it. Let’s face it, the fishing lure business could easily have flopped! And there were many times along the way when it looked like her dream of starting a television network would never become a reality. And there have been many times since the founding of EWTN when it’s appeared that this incredible dream couldn’t be sustained any longer. Needless to say, paying the monthly bills has not been easy! If you watch EWTN, you know that!

But because Rita/Mother was willing to take these and other risks for the Lord, great things have been accomplished in his name—and many souls, no doubt, have been saved! Amazingly, in establishing a worldwide Catholic presence in the media, this woman (who has only a high school education) did what the highly-educated Catholic bishops of this country—and several millionaires—were unable to do!

Remember, there’s no “Catholic Bishops’ Television Network” out there on the airwaves; there’s only EWTN!

But what about us? What about you and me?

Today, ask yourself this question: What am I willing to risk in order to do God’s perfect will in my life?

That’s a question that needs to be considered seriously, prayerfully and honestly—because, as this parable reminds us, the answer we give has eternal implications!

In order to do God’s will, am I willing to risk losing the support of certain members of my family and some of my friends (as Rita Rizzo was)?

Am I willing to risk looking foolish to others (as Mother Angelica was)?

Am I willing to risk losing time—specifically some of my precious free time? The fact is, doing God’s will and reaching out to those in need can very often take a big bite out of your leisure activities. Just ask those men and women—and young people—who volunteer so faithfully here in our parish and in our local community.

Some of them have very little time for themselves.

It’s very interesting to contrast what people are willing to risk to do God’s will, with what they’re willing to risk to get ahead in the world.

As we all know, for earthly profit many people are more than willing to risk their money and their personal assets (through investments and even sometimes through activities like gambling). To climb the corporate ladder or to buy a bigger home, some put their marriages and their families at risk (by working too many hours or by taking too many business trips). Some are even willing to risk their health and their future for worldly gain (just ask the athletes who take steroids, or the fashion models who are anorexic or bulimic).

But to do the perfect will of God in their lives, some of these same people aren’t willing to risk very much at all.

Taking risks to serve God and others is not easy. In fact, it’s quite difficult. That’s one reason, incidentally, why we don’t have more vocations.

In recent decades there have been many men called to the priesthood and religious life—many men called to put their gifts at the service of God and the Church—who have said No because they weren’t willing to take the risks.

And how do I know that?

Because for a few years I was one of them!

Thankfully, by the grace of God, I overcame that fear and I entered the seminary at the age of 25.

What am I willing to risk in order to do God’s perfect will in my life?

May the example of Rita Rizzo inspire all of us to risk more in the future than we have in the past—so that on the Day of Judgment Jesus will say to us what the master said to the first two men in this Gospel parable: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”