A Deep Dive into Barbara Morgan’s Echoing the Mystery with Sr. Elizabeth Ann (Part one of two)

The article below is an excerpt taken from Mind and Heart, a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. John Dominic Rasmussen, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Before we dive into the book Echoing the Mystery, I have a special guest here with me today, Sister Elizabeth Ann. Sister, before we dive into Barbara Morgan’s book Echoing the Mystery, tell us about yourself, when you entered the convent and your teaching experience with this material.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

I’ve been a part of the community since 2000, as part of the jubilee group. We are still celebrating that. Since I entered, I’ve had a variety of experiences. First, that initial formation and then because my degree wasn’t in education, going back and getting an education degree. Then having opportunities working in our mission advancement office and then the last four years teaching first at Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago and now at Father Gabriel Richard here in Ann Arbor. I love teaching.

Sr. John Dominic:

It shows. You have this glow about you when you’re doing it, which is really wonderful, especially with high school students. We spent some time talking about Barbara Morgan and her experience. Anyone who has a copy of Echoing the Mysterycan read in the introduction a history of her 70 years of being involved in Catechesis. You were her graduate assistant, right? What was it like? What did you learn from that? Let’s understand why we have such a beautiful work to offer.

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Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

Meeting Babara Morgan is one of the formative experiences of my life. Even though I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school, and I had already been at Steubenville for a couple of years when I met her, she was the first real living example of what Christian womanhood was. I had never seen people like her and Gary, her husband, who took their faith so seriously. One thing that struck me was going to her home for the first time knowing that Gary had had a successful career for several years, that they had chosen to come to Steubenville because they felt a calling from God, and that this was a chance for Barbara to give her gifts, to help build up the church and help in this work, and seeing the way they embrace that. They wanted God’s will, as a couple, for their lives, and they wanted to serve the church. Even though Gary had been so successful, they had such a simple home in Steubenville. The simplicity with which they lived was a witness to me. Your faith is supposed to have an impact on every detail of your life, and seeing their gift of hospitality was truly beautiful. Barbara was a woman of prayer and took that seriously. It was all a wonderful example to me.

Sr. John Dominic:

She was very protective of you at that time. Actually, I had her Scripture catecheses class that she taught. At that time, we’d not started the community, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. I was still a member of the national Dominicans at that time. When I came back and saw her again, and we were a new community, and you were discerning and feeling God calling you to be a part of this, she called me and said, “I’m going to be very bold. Do you realize what you’re giving?” I said, “Well, yes.” She says, “I want to make sure that this is a sound place where she is going.” I said, “Let me assure you, Cardinal O’Connor started this, but we have a lot of experience.” She said, “Okay.”  Now, years later, she’ll see me and says, “I’m so embarrassed that I asked you that. I see that this is really a work of the Lord. Do you understand why I was protective?” I said, “Yes.” 

When you’re at the beginning of something, such as working with Barbara as an assistant, you’re trailblazing because she was starting the program. What was it like to be in that role as something new was starting out?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

It was so exciting and providential. I was at my undergrad degree in the early ’90s. I graduated in ’95 and then went back to do a graduate degree in Steubenville, and it was right at the time that Barbara was coming. I had experienced theology at Steubenville already, and I could sense that the University needed something. The majority of their graduates were not getting degrees so that they could move on to a doctorate and publish works in theology or teach at a university level. Primarily, they were getting theology degrees because they wanted to teach high school or they wanted to work in parishes. The students were not prepared for that. So many times, they’d have all the knowledge of the faith, but they didn’t know how to interact with people, or they didn’t know how to speak the truth in love, or they struggled to actually teach the kids the faith and move their hearts. A lot of students struggled because they loved learning about their faith, but the people they were going to didn’t feel that automatic desire to know. [They had] to win them over and help them to see the beauty of the faith. The students were struggling out in the field, and Barbara knew exactly what they needed, and she gave it to them. It was the perfect complement to what Franciscan provided. She gave us the tools to be able to hand on the faith to others, which is what the majority of the graduates wanted to do.

Sr. John Dominic:

I remember being in her class. She was almost like a grandmother to everybody. She could say things that most people couldn’t get away with, which was refreshing. She’d say, “You need to be humble.” The point she would drive home is that there are distinctions with theology and catecheses. In theology, you’re studying God and you may understand everything and you’re thinking about it, but you can’t do theology when you’re doing catechesis. How would you explain those two differences to people? 

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

That was a key distinction that she made. She would basically tell us, “You’re not going to do theology in the parishes. You’re handing on the faith.” She would explain that theology dealt with possibilities. What are the possibilities of the reality of God or the implications of what God has revealed? Catechesis is what we have to believe. This is what we need in order to be in a close relationship with God and to get to heaven and to live the richest, fullest life on earth. Catechesis is what’s been defined. This is our faith, what we profess in the creed. This is what everyone needs to know whereas theology was more those possibilities. It’s very important when you’re teaching people that you’re not putting a burden on it. If you’re dealing with speculations, “Do I have to believe that? What if this doesn’t make sense?” In catechesis, it’s much more clear. “This is what you’re required to believe. This is what it means to be Catholic.” You embrace these truths.

Sr. John Dominic:

That distinction is important, and when I was finishing when she was starting, I could see that same need that you expressed. People were hungry. They’re looking forward to hire people that were in love with the faith. When you begin to study it and you’re doing theology, you think, “Why didn’t I know about this?” It’s another thing to teach it. She would drive that point that catechesis is echoing down the faith. You’re handing down God’s revelation. You’re the instrument to make that happen. 

You spent a lot of time as a graduate assistant traveling with her. What was she doing?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

Barbara was always thinking about the formation of her students. How can I give them experiences that will help them to succeed when they’re out in the field? While I was her graduate assistant, she took on roles as a consultant to two different dioceses in two different areas. For the archdiocese of Washington, she was a consultant for RCIA, and for the diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she was a consultant for catechist training. For three years, I went with her once a month to Sioux Falls to help her. She went to Sioux Falls because a graduate of hers, whose daughter, coincidentally, is also in our community, was the director of catechesis for the diocese of Sioux Falls and he booked it. Bishop Carlson made a proposal to invite Barbara to come and to train the catechists, but it was a Franciscan graduate who had been formed by Barbara, who wanted to bring that formation to [his community]. It was a rural telecommunications network, this little universe. We drove through cornfields to get to this university, and it was broadcast. At the time, it was on the cutting edge.

Sr. John Dominic:

With that experience, did you ever pause and think how are we going to get all this stuff that she’s teaching together. Did you ever dream that we’d be able to pull it off?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

I don’t think I was thinking that far ahead. Seeing the book now, it makes me think back to when Barbara had a class called Content in Curriculum that was basically an early version of Echoing the Mystery. She went through close to 60 doctrines in that class, teaching us the keys of the deposit, the premise, and the essentials. We had an oral exam for that class where she could pick any of those doctrines, and you had to explain the premise and the essentials. What struck me when she taught us how to analyze doctrine, how to wrap our minds around it and see how things fit together, was the beauty of the truth. You could see how what God has revealed is logical and coherent. The truths flow one from another. Some truths are foundational; others are based on them. This makes sense. There is this premise on which the truth is based, and if you get that, then you will easily be able to grasp onto everything else. Everything flows from that so you can see how it stays together in your mind. That whole class changed the way that I thought about doctrine, and yet it was so natural because this is what our minds are made for.

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Sr. John Dominic:

There’s a long list of her students who have found their role in the church, some are more well known than others. We may not know the person that’s in a diocese that’s transformed all the parishes. We’re not going to know these things until eternity. Oftentimes in catechesis people were allergic to the word doctrine and what it is. I think what Barbara was able to do and the beauty of this approach is showing the beauty of the mysteries of the faith, that you fall in love with this. You see that this is God’s revelation. If you think about friendship, the way you get to know someone is you have to know who the other person is. You establish a friendship so that you’re brought into a relationship with God, not that you have to know these things and your life has to be in conformity. You want your life to be in conformity. Is that what you experienced as a student, witnessing this in the lives of other people?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

Yes. Barbara was always making the point that the foundation for everything was the love that never ends. The whole purpose of God revealing Himself was so that we can be in a relationship with Him. With individual doctrines, you have the premise and all the essentials, but then there’s the underlying premise. Everything is based on the revelation of God’s love.

Sr. John Dominic:

Knowing her and seeing the simplicity of her life, that’s what you would expect. It’s a witness of a person who’s had that encounter with Christ. Hopefully our listeners are eager to get Echoing the Mystery now that we’re able to see Barbara Morgan a little more personally. Our community is honored to have worked with her and to make her life’s work available to catechists, and maybe in years to come we can help change the role of catechesis in the United States and maybe the world. Thank you, Sister. Your contribution is invaluable.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

I have to thank you because you asked, “Were you thinking ahead if we have to capture this?”, and I wasn’t, but you were. I’m so grateful that you felt that urgency to capture this. We have to be able to hand this on.

Sr. John Dominic:

Sister, thank you so much for this conversation. I know that this is the first of many episodes. The next one, we’re going to dive in and look at this more as you’re actually using this in the field practically.

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