PEOPLE EVERYWHERE still know her as Monica from TV’s popular Touched by an Angel series. She was the beautiful, sensitive angel with the lilting Irish accent, the star of the show. Over its nine-year
run on CBS, the show touched millions of lives with its simple message: that God has a plan for each of us and watches over us with a loving hand. The TV ratings agreed with what we all know: People long to hear that.
Roma Downey, now a parent of teens, is back with more angels. This time she’s the producer of Little Angels, a fun, animated feature for preschoolers and kindergartners. The DVD series is really aimed at young parents who grew up watching lots of TV and, like it or not, are using the TV to help them occupy their young children’s time. It’s being released as this issue of St. Anthony Messenger goes to press.
Roma invited Friar Jack Wintz and me to her oceanfront home in Malibu, California, where she and her husband, acclaimed producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice), are raising their family, to tell us the story.
As we sit on a backyard patio enjoying a cup of Irish tea, shaded from sun, waves crashing below the cliff at yard’s edge and birds chirping from nearby bushes, Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island sitting on a nearby table, Friar Jack and I share a long visit with Roma. She describes the program and its purpose, shows us some samples on her iPad, talks about her own life and some challenges of modern parenting. I couldn’t help but ask her a bit about Della Reese and those Touched by an Angel years, too.
‘Rags to Riches’
Her family of origin in Ireland was working class, as was her husband, Mark’s, in England. They are now living a luxurious lifestyle (“It’s an American ‘rags to riches’ story,” she explains) where faith is still an important value. She attends Our Lady of Malibu Parish, where her teen daughter, Reilly Marie, is preparing for Confirmation.
Roma is mom to Mark’s two children, too, and has devoted herself to raising all three properly. “I have three teenagers here,” she exclaims, laughing: “I have my hands full!” They need her now more than ever, she wisely observes.
It was teenaged Roma herself who, in spite of her humble place, studied acting in London, performed in theatre classics such as Shakespeare and Chekhov, then starred in the U.S. tour of Dublin’s well-known Abbey Players in a production that won her, in 1991, a nomination for the Helen Hayes Best Actress Award.
Reveling in her talent, she decided to emigrate to New York City and the big time. She soon found herself working as a cloakroom attendant in the Manhattan theater district. That’s where the acting jobs were, and she soon indeed found herself on the Broadway stage.
Eventually, she would be discovered there for television, including an early role in 1991 as Jackie Kennedy in the Emmy Award-winning network production A Woman Named Jackie. She recounts a funny episode from those days. TV personality Regis Philbin once came to the theater and checked
his coat with young Roma. “We exchanged pleasantries, and he left me a good tip,” she recounts. “He was so lovely, so generous!” A few years later, after she was cast in Touched by an Angel, she appeared on Live With Regis and Kelly and told the first part of the story. “He nervously blurted, ‘Tell me I left you a good tip!’”
She recalls it all with an immigrant’s fondness: “America’s been so good to us! That that kind of story can exist here! One thing I love about America is that you’re encouraged to be the best that you can be. It’s such a beautiful thing!”
She carries that attitude into her role as parent: “One of our mantras here is that to those much has been given, much is expected.” In her stage-trained, soft brogue, she explains, “One of my most important values is that I would be raising children who are conscious and kind, who are loving, who are respectful and productive. But I maybe place kindness on the top of everything. Everything else can flow from
Faith is a big part. She’s not as strict as her father was—he required the children to kneel nightly on the linoleum floor and pray the Rosary (“That wasn’t a pleasant thing for any of us!”). On the bright side, though, her childhood home was filled with “holy pictures and holy statues—there was such a beauty in that. I really grew up feeling very connected.”
Her faith was key to accepting her mother’s death when Roma was a child (age 10). The absence of her mother encouraged Roma’s devotion to the Holy Mother. As an adult, she’s been “several times” to Lourdes and Fatima. “And, of course, we’ve all been to Knock” (in Ireland).
Her favorite saints are Patrick and Brigid (“I wouldn’t be allowed back in Ireland if I didn’t say that!”). When asked who her second-favorite saint is, she confesses, “It would be the cameo characters in the Christmas story. Probably St. Joseph.” Then she adds, “Or the Little Flower.” One can see that she
has a hard time deciding.
Her name, by the way, is a combination of her grandmothers’ names: Rose Downey and Mary O’Reilly. Her parish priest, of course, would not allow her to be baptized Roma, she recalls, as she strikes a pose proper for retelling a beloved family story. “The priest said, ‘I’ll christen her Rose Marie, and you
can call her whatever the hell you like!’” She’s 100% Irish.
She was educated by the Sisters of Mercy “in a way that we were encouraged to step into service.” It’s a lesson she has held on to.
An Angelic Role
Touched by an Angel brought it all together for Roma. The youthful actress needed a mother figure, and Della Reese, who played Tess, the older, experienced angel, was there for her.
“She was a great teacher,” Roma recalls. “She took me in her arms on that first day, and said, ‘This is where you belong….I know that God has brought you into my life because you needed a mother.’” Some years later, after Della’s daughter had died young, Della told her, “I just didn’t know that God was bringing you into my life because I would need a daughter.” The women are close friends to this day.
“We worked 12-14 hours a day for 10 years—that’s a lot of time with that sort of material,” observes Roma. “I think you’d have to be very thick-skinned—which I am not in the first place—for it not to become really a part of you.” An inner voice developed for Roma, one that asked, What would Monica do? in all manner of real-life situations.
“I think we were regarded as a bit of a joke” in Hollywood. But Roma quietly observes, “The premise that God exists, that God loves you, that God would be part of your life—I, as the messenger, got to deliver that message to 20 million people a week. That’s extraordinary! We really were a show that spoke to the heart of America.”
But the messenger role didn’t stop when the lights went down. Everywhere Roma went, people would see her as Monica the angel. She tells another story, this time one that happened close to Christmas. Early in her years as Monica, Roma, wearing a Santa Claus hat, was going from room to room in a hospital, visiting sick children, handing out ornaments, spreading cheer. “A door opened and a family started exiting the room. On the bed lay their dead child.
“The mother saw me immediately and said, ‘Monica!’ and she threw her arms around me. I prayed quietly to know what to say to her. I couldn’t think of anything. I held her and tried to be of comfort. She said again, ‘Monica.’” Roma resisted the urge to try to explain that she was not Monica the angel, that it was only a role. But she remained, holding the woman. “The woman said, ‘I prayed that God would send an angel for my baby, and here you are.’”
Roma wanted to correct the woman but felt compelled to say nothing. “It’s only afterward that I’m so glad I said nothing. I just held her. And so she gathered up her family, and they thanked me—I had done nothing, you understand—and they left.”
It happened repeatedly over the years: “Because I played such a beautiful role, people would project onto me an experience they needed. I didn’t really know how to hold that space for them.”
Talking things over with Della, she was counseled: “‘I think you should be so glad that God told you to say nothing. She didn’t need an actress, Roma, she needed an angel.’” Roma remembers protesting again to Della, “I know that, Della, but she thinks God sent me!” Della told her, “And who said he didn’t? As we go forward, I suggest that you step out of the way, and we collectively allow ourselves to be used.”
“That was very early on, and it was such great advice because the story I’ve just recounted to you happened thousands of times. I learned, as I called it, just to hold a space, to be a catalyst for loving.”
One of her favorite prayers, she says, is the Prayer of St. Francis, “‘Make me a channel of your peace’—just to open that channel and allow God to work through me….We all were being used. I believe that’s why the show was so successful.”
That sense of being used by God is why Roma is so committed to her Little Angels project today. She understands fully the strains endured by parents of young children, and our society’s relentless push of values devoid of religion.
“I believe that parents would much rather make a choice of a TV show that they can trust not only for content and practical skills, but one that can really bring some important life lessons.” After all, she says, “We all need help raising our children.”
Then, sitting between us, showing off an animated sample on her iPad, her soft, beautiful lilt belying her enthusiasm, she asks, “Isn’t it charming?”
“It’s as cute as anything!” she exclaims, proudly talking about her new program. She goes on to describe the animated Little Angels series, which hinges around eight young angels from the bedroom wallpaper who spring to life once the parents have tucked in four-year-old children, Alex and Zoie, and left the room. The angels set about, in each episode, teaching ABCs, addition, subtraction and the like to the children, using figures from Bible stories to make their points.
“It’s evocative of my own childhood,” says Roma. “It’s very nostalgic—the kind of animation I might have grown up with” (she was born in Derry City, Ireland, in 1960).
The goal is to promote family values, familiarity with Bible stories and some early childhood education. “The larger lesson is about sharing and being nice to each other” (the kids are constantly fighting—sound familiar?). She offers an example: “In the first episode we see the children fighting over a book. The little angels fly down. Their first lesson is to teach the kids the ABCs. A is for angel, B is for Bible, C is for Christ, D is for David and so on.”
Each 30-minute DVD consists of three seven-and-a-half-minute segments. They are meant for watching,
and for conversations with parents. “Many parents wonder, particularly with young children, how to start that conversation about God,” she says. “I hasten to say that, having played an angel for 10 years of my life, and being aware of angels in my own faith, the angel here really is just part of the bigger message, the message of God’s love.
“I know, having raised my own family, that there are those moments when you have to make a phone call, or you’re in the car and you’d like the kids to be quiet in the back, or you’re in the doctor’s office and so on. I think we’ve all put the television on, or an iPhone app, in the hope of buying five or 10 minutes.”
The first two DVDs, one on the alphabet, the other on animals, were released in November. The third, scheduled for next spring, will be on numbers. The short duration of the three episodes on each DVD is in answer to young children’s short attention span.
The role of producer is a new role for Roma, one that she enjoys a lot (“Did I mention that I’m the producer?” she repeats with a laugh). Making this kind of program “is just true to who I am,” she says.
The whole production is part of Roma’s effort to produce programs that “uplift and inspire,” as she says. She founded a company, LightWorkers Media, to do just that: “I was raised as a person of integrity.”
Celebrating the Bible–and Christmas
HOW CAN WE SHARE our faith with this generation? asks Roma. Her next project, with her husband, producer Mark Burnett, is a History Channel series on the Bible. “With all of the special effects that are available to us, we have an opportunity to breathe visual life into these wonderful stories,” she says.
Preparing for the show over the past few years has taken Roma and family to some biblical sites, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Franciscan-cared-for church celebrated as the birthplace
of Jesus. That was Christmas Eve 2009. Roma remembers it as “very powerful and moving, very beautiful.”
She also walked the Via Dolorosa, the “Walk of Sorrows,” retracing the footsteps of Jesus during the Passion—along the way to the everlasting completion of the Christmas story in the Resurrection. “I was very deeply impacted by the station where Jesus fell, and how the wall had been eroded by people’s touch.”
Her husband said to her, “How do they know that he touched this place?” or by implication, any of the places singled out for veneration in the Holy Land: birthplace, burial tomb and so on. “I said to him, ‘What does it matter if he touched this place or that place? The rock has been eroded by the faith of billions of people!” To Roma, that is what counts: “When we come together; when your faith touches my faith—together, we can move mountains!”
The Bible series will include not only special-effect reenactments of biblical events, but also interviews with a panel of biblical experts, possibly celebrity testimonials—the idea is still in development.
Her target date for the series to air is Easter 2013. “That’s me speaking,” she acknowledges with a
laugh. “Keep us in your prayers. We have an opportunity to create an extraordinary 10 hours.”