A Deep Dive into Barbara Morgan’s Echoing the Mystery with Sr. Elizabeth Ann (Part Two 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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Sister Elizabeth Ann, the chair of Fr. Gabriel Richard’s theology department, has spent the last year utilizing Echoing the Mystery in her religion classes.  She is sharing her experiences with that process as well as her hopes moving forward implementing Echoing the Mystery more broadly in her school. It is our hope that her experiences will inspire our listeners to use Echoing the Mystery as well, whether as teachers, catechists, parents, or their own personal lives.

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Sr. John Dominic:

How does it feel to be chair of the department?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

I enjoy it. It was great to be able to teach at the school for two years with Sister Sarah Burdick, who was the department chair before me for 15 years. She’s a wonderful woman of God and built a strong foundation there. It was wonderful to work with her and get her mind on things. She had a heart to bring people to Jesus. To be able to step into her shoes, I felt ready for the new role in the theology department. It’s a gift to be able to serve the teachers as well as the students at the school.

Sr. John Dominic:

Echoing the Mystery was finished at the beginning of the year you started as chair. Anyone who’s involved with education knows that you can’t just pick up something and start it right away. You have to spend time studying it and trying to understand how you can incorporate into it. As we’ve done it, people are drawn to it because it’s beautiful. They see the doctrines and the layout and know that the content is rich because it’s rooted in Scripture and in the catechism, especially with analyzing the keys of the doctrine. At the same time, people are saying, “I’m a catechist. How do I use this?” “I teach first grade. How do I use this?” “I’m doing RCIA.” There may be people involved with high school asking, “How am I going to use this?” The USCCB has standards and criteria that they want certain things taught in high school, which is great because that gives us a road map to move forward. I would love to hear how you’ve used it and how you’re thinking about using it going forward. 

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Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

When we got the book, I knew that I’d be teaching the sophomore class on the church because I’d already taught it for two years, and I had a basic familiarity with the content. That’s where I needed to start and depict one particular doctrine that I was teaching and see how I could use this resource to help me to teach it even better. First, as it’s intended, it’s a resource for me so that I can sit down and immerse myself in what the church teaches about itself. I started by bringing it to prayer in the chapel. I took time staring at all the pictures in the book, trying to get a sense of how it covers the doctrine of the church. There’s four or five different doctrines dedicated to the church. I thought, “Wow. This is a significant portion of this book. No other doctrine has three outlines for this.” Then I looked at what I’d already been teaching on the church, based on the US Bishops’ framework. I thought how does that match up with what’s in this book? It matched up in some places. It didn’t match up in others. I thought, “I’m teaching the doctrine of the church. What do I need to bring into my teaching?” I ended up creating my own outline based on the four or five different sections of the mystery that covers the doctrine of the church. Barbara would say in class many times, “We teach people not topics.” I had that in the back of my mind. What do my students need? I was looking at the Diocese of Lansing standards that are based on the USCCB framework and then what I’ve done in the past and this book. A great benefit of this book is that it has everything in one place. It has the scriptures right there for you.

Sr. John Dominic:

You’ve used it for your own prayer time and personal study, looking at the religious art and seeing how it works with the liturgy to make that connection. Part of the hope when using this resource is that it gives a catechist, tasked with this awesome responsibility of handing on the faith, a roadmap to make the connection between the catechism and scripture. Obviously, this content may be a little more detailed than you would teach to a high school student. How do you prepare your lessons with this? 

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

This book has been an amazing gift and enriched my teaching in so many ways this year. Teaching the faith in a school setting is balancing the need for instruction [with the heart]. There are standards that you’re following and then moving their hearts. [You have to] give them the information the diocese requires them to know for the test, but also let those truths that you’re teaching impact their hearts and change their lives. This book helps to move the heart in so many different ways. I started using more artwork when teaching, and the kids are mesmerized by it. It gives you all the information about the artwork, which is a great and tremendous resource.Using the artwork and walking them through the picture is engaging. I use it in different ways to reinforce a particular part of it. Usually for each doctrine, there’s more than one piece of art that you can choose with explanations.

Sr. John Dominic:

That’s the greatest thing because I can look at something sometimes and think, “Oh, this is beautiful,” and they’ll say, “Tell me something about it,” and I’ll say, “Uh.” In Echoing the Mystery, there’s a wonderful explanation for each piece of artwork, and it brings it alive. Art has been used to teach the history of the church or the world. We make sure that we have a differentiation in our curriculum and how we’re teaching so that your visual learners are going to remember this and you’re going to be able to bring them into this mystery by showing it to them. Would you use it at the beginning of class or keep it up as you’re lecturing?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

Usually, I would use the artwork at the beginning as an introduction of the divine perspective or with one of the particular essentials to reinforce a point, but there’s no set time that I would use it. I look for times when it would fit. When do they need something that’s going to engage them or move them even more? I had already created PowerPoints from teaching this in previous years, and I realized I have to have that so that the kids can take notes. There’s things that they have to learn.

Sr. John Dominic:

I think that’s important, too, because there’s different ways we teach. You would love it to always be this wonderful retreat-like setting, but we do have standards, and it’s mind and heart. In order for them to love the faith, they have to know the faith. It is important that they take notes, so you use the PowerPoint presentation. As you’ve prayed and taken the doctrine to prayer and to heart, you transmit it using modern technology, but you’re still the person handing it on.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

The primary is the catechist, not the textbook. It’s not the notes that they’re taking. It’s the witness that I’m giving that I believe this. As a Dominican sister, it’s the fruit of my contemplation. It’s a both-and.

Sr. John Dominic:

When I talk to the sisters that use this to teach the sisters, the approach is different because we don’t take tests. You, on the other hand, have to turn in grades at the end of the quarter, so you’re going to have to have both of them. I think that’s important when we understand the balance of what it truly means to be a catechist. How would you flesh out a lesson?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

With the church, which is a big topic with different parts, I would look at how to divide the topics. There’s what is the church itself, and then the four marks of the church and then the teaching office of the church, infallibility, etc., those things that we believe, plus even things like the structure of the church, the hierarchy, the different roles of the hierarchy. I used the book to help me, first of all, understand the church and what we believe about the church as Catholics and marinate in the doctrines, and then from there, use this book to help enrich [my lessons]. I looked at what I had taught in the past and thought, “Where am I getting this right? When am I missing something? Where can I rephrase this section of the lesson so that it’s more clear or moves the heart more?” 

Sr. John Dominic:

For Barbara, words are very important, how they’re crafted together. If you look at the essentials, every way in which that is said isn’t just, “Oh, it’s this way.” Every word is important. There’s a craft to catechesis. You were looking at how you’ve taught and is there another way you can say it. That’s the beauty of the catechist — “How can I communicate this in a way that I can not only reach their minds but also reach their hearts.” In our times, there’s a lot of questions, and you hear about people leaving the church or who don’t believe in anything. That culture influences the students and that’s why I love you showing them the artwork because there’s so much violence that we can see or images that come in. Jesus says our eye has to be sound because what we bring in comes through our eyes and our senses. St. Thomas taught that. Have you felt something different in your lessons this year as you’ve used Echoing the Mystery

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

I can see that the scripture has an impact on my students. It’s powerful to teach with scripture. This book has helped me be more intentional about using scripture. Before it would be kind of the thing I would sort of throw-in at the end. Barbara would cringe if she heard me say that because she taught me not to do that, but the practicalities of teaching can be hard sometimes. Echoing the Mystery, again, has it all there for you, and I had no reason to forget the scripture. It’s the power of God’s word. God reaches in and moves their hearts, and I find that things that you teach from scripture stay with them even more.

Sr. John Dominic:

On that point, when you’re planning your lessons, have your lessons started maybe with a scripture verse instead of at the end?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

Yes, I’m getting better at it, anyway. The passage for the church is from Ephesians, about how God planned before the foundation of the world that we’d be holy and blameless in His sight, that He had a plan and that all of creation unfolds this plan that we be in a relationship with Him. The church is the place where we can be in a relationship with Him. I started with that passage from Ephesians and tried to teach them Lectio Divina. I used one of your resources with questions to prompt them and imagine bolding some words and underlining what is God calling us to be? Holy and blameless in His sight. They love it. This helps us achieve that balance between head and heart. I find regular times to take my students to the chapel. I’m so blessed that we have a chapel at the school where I teach, where we can sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament and do Lectio Divina. It’s either preparing them for the lesson or reinforcing something, or a prayer at the end, but they love it. They ask to go to the chapel some days. They need that time.

Sr. John Dominic:

I know, and I have to agree with you when you talk about the scripture. When putting together the Life of Christor working on the Lectio Divina journals for Advent and Lent, one thing I’ve become more convinced of as an administrator is it’s really hard [to take that time]. I had to give the teachers permission to give up their class time for them to be able to [take the students to the chapel]. We have to get out of the way and allow them to encounter because the Holy Spirit is alive and active in scripture, and when they’re actually reading it, it begins to move their hearts. In some of our other episodes I’ll be talking to Dr. Karen Villa. She studies neuroplasticity and understanding how a healthy mind is a healthy body. Studies talk about how young people or even ourselves need this quiet time. From a secular perspective, people are doing this because it’s my “me time.” For us, it’s our me time, but it’s also our God time so that we can be open and learn to have that relationship so that we can in turn offer prayer, which is the virtue of religion. We pray because we need to pray, but most importantly, we pray because we’re giving worship to God. I encourage people, if they’re high school teachers, to not be afraid to take the time to do the artwork like you’ve done. There’s also hymns with these things. Now, if they were me, I wouldn’t be able to sing them.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

I have not used the hymns, but I’m glad that they’re there.

Sr. John Dominic:

We can point to the mass and hear the liturgy. It’s showing the beauty of the organic unity of everything. The more and more that we can show that to them, hopefully, as they get older, they’re going to look back and say, “My faith and what I’ve been taught, the church is something I know about. I love being a part of the body of Christ.”

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

Exactly. I can’t imagine not being Catholic.

Sr. John Dominic:

What’s your vision? You’ve used Echoing the Mystery this year as you’re teaching. How do you plan on bringing your colleagues in on this?

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

What I’m really hoping to be able to do next year is a year of catechist training with the teachers and help them embrace their identity as catechists, not just as religion teachers, which means that they are echoing down the mystery. They’re teaching Christ’s teaching to the students, and they are moving both the minds and hearts, so helping them embrace that identity and helping them fall in love with doctrine. I hope to use Echoing the Mysterywith them, probably to lead them through the process of analyzing and pondering the beauty of the truth of particular doctrines and then giving them a copy so that they can do this themselves and then also the practical details of how they can use this as teachers. I’m glad I had a year to try using it myself, so I can give practical tips. The flexibility is part of the beauty of this book. These aren’t teaching outlines. They don’t all have to teach it exactly this way. They can use the book as a resource as they put together their lessons for their particular students.

Sr. John Dominic:

One thing that’s important for people to understand when they’re using it is that you don’t have to teach all six essentials. You look at the standards of the diocese, which were aligned with the bishops’. You may have a particular doctrine, and you’ve got six essentials, but they may be asking you, at this level, only to highlight two of those. It’s important as a catechist to know all of them but know which ones shine the light on and say, “Okay, we need to make sure that they understand those and to realize they may get that later on.” One thing you’ve said, which is important, is that you’ve used it. You’ll be able to speak to your colleagues from personal experience. They have witnessed this in your teaching and maybe they’ve witnessed the impact that it’s had on your students. Who knows? That’s in God’s hands. I’d love to have you come back as you get a little bit more into this and say, “This works. This doesn’t work.” One of our goals as we do the podcast is to help people learn how to unpack the resources. This is one that we’ll be using throughout the next year and in years to come. Also showing the connection between all of our resources because when you love the church, someone may be called to say that yes and to understand the beauty of religious life. Sister, thank you so much for your history and your knowledge of Barbara and your personal experience of being a catechist, and most importantly, that you love teaching.

Sr. Elizabeth Ann:

It’s a great joy.

Sr. John Dominic:

Thank you, Sister.

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