Arguably the most significant force in shaping today’s American Catholic landscape, the celebrated, controversial foundress of Catholic media’s most prominent outlet was honored by Rome over the weekend as Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham conferred the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross on Mother Angelica and her longtime top aide in overseeing the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), Deacon Bill Steltemier . Awarded by Pope Benedict, the gong comes at the close of a decade, by turns tumultuous and triumphant, that began with 1999’s dedication of a majestic new monastery for Mother’s growing fold of cloistered Poor Clares and an apostolic visitation of the Alabama-based enterprise which led the feisty, fearless Franciscan to place her garage-born apostolate under lay oversight. Along the way, the network’s third decade saw its impact on the US church’s life and practice became ever more sizable, touching everything from priestly and religious vocations and parish liturgies to the influence of its roster of “stars” on the nation’s Catholic orbit — a clout which rivals, if not bests, all but a handful of the Stateside hierarchy — and, to top it all, the success of her authoritative 2005 biography, written by EWTN news director Raymond Arroyo, which cracked the New York Times best-seller list and was quickly followed-up by a sequel of Angelica’s words of wisdom. Now 86 and mostly confined to bed following a 2001 stroke, the unlikeliest of media moguls couldn’t attend the St Francis’ Day Vespers at which the award for her faithful and distinguished service “to the church and the pontiff” was presented. Instituted in 1889 by Pope Leo XIII, the Pro Ecclesia is the Vatican’s highest honor for religious men and women and permanent deacons. Though layfolk who’ve rendered exemplary devotion to church and community may also receive the bronze Cross suspended from a gold and white ribbon, the higher accolade of papal knighthood is reserved to the laity alone.