Introducing Echoing the Mystery

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Today we have Sister Athanasius with us to begin our discussion of Echoing the Mystery, which takes a different direction than our earlier work. However, I would say that this book started even before all of the others, and it might be what got things going. 

Around 12 years ago, I was studying at Franciscan University, finishing up my master’s degree, when Barbara Morgan was called by Father Scanlon to come teach at Franciscan. Most importantly, she was called to begin a catechetical program. The very first class she taught there was called Scripture: The Heart of Catechesis. I remember being in that class and being touched by her approach, her humility, and her deep love of the faith.

One thing that Barbara showed me is that a catechist is really a witness looking for conversion in the people they teach. She had fallen in love with the faith when she was 14. In class, she unpacked techniques and talked about the approach she developed to analyze and understand doctrine. This was before the Catechism of the Catholic Church was done, and people were looking for direction.

Eventually, she moved back to Ann Arbor. I was stunned and excited to have her in our neighborhood. Her grandchildren were in our schools, and we were bumping into her. I asked if she’d be willing to come teach the sisters catechesis. Sister Athanasius, were you in any of those classes?

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Sr. Athanasius:

I was in her last group when I was a postulant.

Sr. John Dominic:

The sisters often talked about her class and the incredible experience that it was. 

When it was time for her to retire, I was the school principal, trying to run the school and train catechists on the importance of handing down the faith. I wanted to capture her approach so that I could use it for the young teachers. 

That’s how the seed of the idea for the book began. We tried to do it. Many people, including Jen Thomm and people at Franciscan, like Ron Bolster, tried to make the book come together. As many times as we would start, there’d be something that would stop it. Sometimes that would be human resources, and other times Barbara would become very ill. One time she was so near death that she planned her funeral.

Sr. Athanasius:

That’s actually happened three times now. The last one happened while we were working on Echoing the Mystery.

Sr. John Dominic:

Even though she kept falling ill, Barbara always came back with determination to finish this book. I wanted to do everything I could to help finish it, and I felt like I was being called to get people together to do it. Totaling God’s providence, Sister Athanasius, you were teaching and needed to come back to the Mother House.  

When I was out talking to Mother Assumpta one day she said, “Sister Athanasius is coming back and she’s available.” She mentioned you’d had some experience in catechesis. As I began to see your wonderful gifts, talents and understanding, I finally had confidence that we would finish the book. I don’t know what your first memory of it is, but you may have thought I was crazy.

Sr. Athanasius:

My first memory was you walking to the table and handing me this pile of outlines, saying, “Don’t change anything. Just get it in a form that people can access. Barbara has such a gift for that you won’t want to change it.”

Sr. John Dominic:

The seven keys, the format, and the template were really important. I was so insistent on not changing anything because Barbara had put so much thought and precision into it. 

I’m really happy to have you on this podcast as we begin understanding Echoing the Mystery and hopefully impacting people as they see what may be a daunting book to some. 

Thank you for the hours upon hours that you spent yourself working on this and for the hours that you spent with Barbara, talking through this and bringing order to it. The community is grateful that we’re able to offer it to other catechists, teachers, or people in the church. It can provide a roadmap on how to bring together the Catechism of the Catholic Church with scripture. We know that scripture drives doctrine, drives the mysteries, and is the place where God’s divine revelation is contained. I would love to hear about your experience working with Barbara and learning how to unpack this. 

Sr. Athanasius:

It was an incredible opportunity. I’m so grateful to Mother, you, and the community for picking me for that. It has been such a gift to sit down routinely with Barbara. It all started with that process of going through what she had already produced and trying to organize it in a way that was accessible. Then, I finally caught up to her and began drafting for her when she became so ill. Getting into her mind and figuring out how to do all of this was such good training. It was a gift to be able to sit down with her and talk about all of it, go deeper in understanding the deposit of faith, and learn how to treasure those mysteries. But then also, of course, we always would get into how to actually apply this to the students that we had in the present moment. The practical application, looking back and forth, was such a gift.

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Sr. John Dominic:

I can imagine. Before we talk about that part of it, I wanted to elaborate on something you mentioned. When we talk about catechesis, it takes place in the school setting, but it’s different than science or math. We talk about how you have to know something before you can love something. Catechesis is intellectual, but at the same time, it’s not how you would prepare any other lesson. She taught you that there is a craft in how it’s put together, how you teach it, and how you present it. Could just say a little bit about what you learned in that process?

Sr. Athanasius:

It’s probably the most important thing I learned, and I think to my dying day, because she said it so many times, I will always hear Barbara’s voice saying, “The essentials are what you have to give them, because they will not get them [if they do not receive them from their catechist]. Because the faith, as it says in scripture, comes through hearing; it’s not through reading a book. They can’t pick up a book and read it; they need somebody to show them in their own treasuring how to treasure it.” 

As John Paul II says, “Catechesis, the whole goal is to put them in touch and in communion with a person, the person of Jesus Christ.” All of those pieces that you’re handing on are not just about getting into the head, but also about getting into the hearts so that there is a response of love. So as Barbara and I were talking about that continually, I just kept saying, “The essentials are what they will not get.” That’s why Echoing the Mystery doesn’t look like any other dogmatic outline. You teach these essential parts and the marks of the church enough to expand this part of the sacramental theology in order to communicate it. Those are all in there, but they’re not as emphasized. It’s a little different because you’re looking at the goal of communion with Christ, especially the theological virtues, as the means by which the students relate.

Sr. John Dominic:

Those are what become infused in us in our baptism. So you’re bringing those alive, training them how to see the doctrine or the mystery in a certain sense.

Sr. Athanasius:

Before working with Barbara, I’d worry about making sure I fit everything in. With every catechesis that I approach now, I say, “Okay. They’re going to know all of that by the time I’m done, mostly. There might be a couple of things that get less emphasis. How can I invite them to greater faith? How can I invite them to greater hope and inspire them to it? How can I show them how to love Christ more deeply?” 

Then, everything else comes into place. Once you know that those are the important things, you know exactly how much you have time for in catechesis. It’s all organized, it’s all purposeful, and the students love it so much. I saw that. The change in how my students received my catechesis was incredible. I could see the transformation it had on their lives and the passion for the lessons they grew to have. They don’t think it’s class, even though I test them.

Sr. John Dominic:

It is a little bit different. You want to show them the importance of the sacred space so the environment or atmosphere that you set is going to be different. I think what you’ve done, working with her on this so beautifully, is bringing together the essentials. We’re trying to align these things to a different standard. We’ll continue to help people use this book to its fullest potential. There’s an organic unity of everything in Echoing the Mystery, including with the art and music. 

What was in Barbara’s mind? She talked about the essentials being important, but bringing in the music, art and liturgy – how does she do that?

Sr. Athanasius:

It’s the incarnational thing. Here’s a really funny example. I had a student in my office two days ago, and I called up a picture of a church. He recognized another church that flashed through and went, “Hey. Hey. Hey. That’s that really, really old church. The oldest one in the world.” He knew this from looking at a picture that was in the Doctrine Project. He could remember every detail his teacher said about it. This is an average kid, nothing extraordinary. I was blown away.

Sr. John Dominic:

I think the beautiful thing about that is that he’s probably a visual learner. Some, that are maybe more musical, might hear the hymn that’s related to a particular document and be able to bring it all together. And for those who are visual, seeing the artwork allows it to come alive for them. If it’s in the liturgy or praying, they begin to kind of have ears that hear, you know?

Sr. Athanasius:

My students come to me all the time saying, “Sister, sister, our memory verse, we said it as the song this week.” I tell them, “Yes, you did. That’s why we do that because it invites you into that response. Didn’t you pay so much more attention when that song was prayed?” 

For liturgy, too, they would write thank you notes to Father for the gift of his priesthood to us. From all of that, they learn to treasure it and to truly enter into the liturgy, which is where that connection with Christ happens in its most glorified form here on Earth.

Sr. John Dominic:

I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me, because you worked very closely with Barbara, and she’s not really able to participate in something like this or have the conversations that we’re going to need to continue learning more about Echoing the Mystery. We will bring in additional people. The first one is Sister Louise Marie, who has been teaching our sisters about the book. We can hear about her experience teaching it.

Everyone has a certain gift to bring to this discussion, and your depth of understanding and your experience writing it with Barbara is invaluable. We said we were going to get this done, so we did get it done.

Sr. Athanasius:

That’s beautiful, Sister. More than just getting it done, your other mark has been the beauty of the layout – your insistence that the face of the book is important and should look beautiful.

Can I mention one thing, because you mentioned gifts? The gift that Barbara has been and is to catechesis is interesting. She was the department head at Franciscan, and Father Mike Scanlan saw her and tapped her for those gifts. As I talk with her, I’ve been amazed by her understanding of the importance of the liturgy, her development of these keys, which is going to be her major lasting contribution to catechesis, and her understanding of curriculum and RCIA. 

She had this incredible understanding of all of it that’s been refracted like the colors of the rainbow in her various students. Some develop deep understandings of liturgy. Others own the curriculum. You, Sister John Dominic really understand virtue, especially in your life of Christ, and your understanding with scripture flows from that. It’s been incredible to see how God gave Barbara the gifts she needed at that time, and how they’ve been enhanced as she goes out to her students. It’s been beautiful.

Sr. John Dominic:

She had a beautiful touch. The humility and understanding at the core of her being is all about conversion, transformation, and bringing people in touch with the person of Jesus Christ.

Sister Athanasius, thank you again for stopping by. This is not going to be the only time you are on the podcast, because we’ll continue to unpack the beautiful richness of this resource, unlocking the deposit of faith in catechesis. Thank you for that and all that you’ve done. 

To those of you who are listening to us, we began with Lumen Ecclesiae Press just as this book was published. Now, as we begin to have conversations on the podcast, you can find us and our collaborators on our YouTube channel, the Dominican Sisters of Mary. 


Sr. John Dominic Rasmussen is a Foundress and General Editor of Lumen Ecclesiae Press for the Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Her podcast Mind and Heart can be downloaded every Monday at 3:00 p.m. EST from iTunes. A visual presentation of the podcast can also be seen on YouTube at GoLEDigital.