Sr Liz Morris RSJ was very keen to be interviewed for this blog. As she told me clearly, “Women are already doing diaconate ministry. It is just not called that.” Liz is part of our quest to shine a light on what already has been, and is, occurring in terms of ministry to serve the people of God on the margins. She has a palpable passion for it. However, Liz added “There is a difference between ministering in a parish in ways similar to that of a deacon and being authorised to minister by the formal act of ordination.”
Liz joined the Sisters of St Joseph after her fourth year of high school. At the time, most ended up being teachers, and so she followed in their footsteps in Adelaide, South Australia. But she soon became very interested in the work of the “Motor Mission Sisters”, who taught religion to Catholic children in state schools and, during the school holidays, prepared them for their sacraments. It was a new ministry that began in the archdiocese in 1956. Liz was appointed to the Adelaide Hills Motor Mission, based at Aldgate, in 1965. She loved connecting with the children through their schools, the YCS groups – which the early missioners established – and the weekend or holiday camps. A most important outreach was to visit families. Apart from a three-year appointment at Renmark, Liz never went back to teaching in a Catholic School. Today she is writing up the history of the South Australian Motor Missions.
After Vatican II, Liz explained, the Josephites and other congregations invested in theological and religious education for their members. “They were enriching times…Our diocese was gifted with good leaders – priests, religious and lay.” After almost 20 years of educating young people within state schools and in parish settings, and focusing on family-based faith education, Liz did further study. Then she embarked on an 18-year journey of Adult Faith Education in the Adelaide Archdiocese, first as part of the CAES Team and then based at CTC. As the new millenium began, Archbishop Len Faulkner’s Diocesan Pastoral Team launched a Ministry Formation Programme (MFP) for laity, with an initial focus on the Pastoral Associates already ministering in Adelaide. It was based at CTC and, gradually, married men participated and several were ordained as permanent deacons. Liz was asked to develop a Rural Ministry Formation Programme, (RMFP) and after considerable research, a four-year part-time course was launched in the South-East of the state in 2008. 11 women and 2 men from Mount Gambier and Millicent participated in the full programme, but the diaconate was not on the agenda. Many more people from the region participated in weekend workshops conducted on Scripture, Liturgy and Canon Law at Penola, Naracoorte and Millicent over those four years.
As 2009 drew to a close, Liz was hit “like a bolt out of the blue” when she was asked if she would take on the role of Pastoral Director in the parish of Bordertown, with Mass centres in both Keith and Kingston. Liz had only a few days to make a decision before the Bishop was to travel to Kingston to consecrate a new church opened in July 2009. He wanted to let the outgoing priest know of the move.
So Liz sought the wisdom of her Josephite spiritual director as well as her brother, Richard, parish priest of Mount Gambier, dean of the Region and ultimately priest-moderator of the Bordertown parish. Liz agreed to take up the role as a half-time position, while continuing the RMFP and her Semester Two teaching commitment on Pastoral Care for the Adelaide MFP. She resided at the vacant Bordertown presbytery. At the conclusion of the RMFP she was appointed to the Bordertown parish full time as Pastoral Director and served in that role for 8 years. Bordertown is 270 kms from Adelaide, Kingston 114 kms east of Bordertown and Keith is 46 kms closer to Adelaide via the Dukes Highway. Parishioners from Tintinara, once part of the Bordertown parish, occasionally requested baptism for their children and celebrated with the Keith Catholic Community.
It is worth noting that this was a direct appointment by the Archbishop and a Contractual Agreement between the Archdiocese and the Sisters of St Joseph was drawn up. Parishioners were not consulted. They simply received a letter from the Archbishop, which was read out at Sunday Mass three weeks before Liz arrived. However, she suggested to the Parish Council at their first meeting in February that they be involved in a commissioning ceremony at each of their three Mass centres, when Fr Richard made the first of his monthly visits. Liz also invited her Provincial Leader. A Parishioner presented Liz with their Vision Statement drawn up some years earlier. It was a meaningful ‘authorisation’ that parishioners endorsed.
Country people often feel on the margins of the Church. This was evident when one of the women in the Mallee Border parish, over 200 kms from Adelaide, rang Fr Richard in February of Liz’s first year in Bordertown and asked him if he was their new parish priest. The priest in Bordertown, which is over 130 kms from the two Mallee Border churches, had been appointed to care for the parish after their resident priest was moved some years earlier. No provision was made for them when Liz went to Bordertown. So, Richard ensured they had a priest to celebrate Mass on a monthly basis and Liz took responsibility for the administration of the parish, visited them bi-monthly for Parish Council and Finance Council meetings and encouraged them to continue to lead Liturgies of the Word with Holy Communion. A small group of people living across the Victorian border at Murrayville were also part of the parish and they too led Liturgies of the Word in their little church. They attended Mass when it was at Pinnaroo and took the Blessed Sacrament back to their little church. The Mallee Border parishioners were not unknown to Liz, as some had been involved in the “Beginning Theology” segment of the RMFP and she had run adult education evenings in the parish. Parishioners had been trained to lead the Liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion by the personnel from CAES and the Diocesan Liturgy Office.
Liz reflects that, for her, Mass is “at the heart” of who we are – “it is a remarkable belief that Christ is truly present.” Yet it is important to remember that “we have Eucharist to BE eucharist for other people. We can only do that if we build up the faith of each other in community.” Therefore, she found that her ministry involved both the liturgical celebrations and the building and sustaining of community.
In her role as Pastoral Director, Liz found that it was so important to go and meet parishioners, to get to know them and allow them to share their stories. On the other hand, this was often something that priests found difficult, especially in the light of the “climate” surrounding past instances of abuse. For Liz, however, visiting was key to her ministry to people on the edges of parish life, and it was what people most appreciated. She said, “That kind of ministry helps build the community, lets people know that God cares, and the community cares.”
Over those 8 years, Liz was “privileged” to minister to the housebound, sick and dying. She was with many people during their final hours. However, she was limited to praying the prayers for the dying, encouraging the person and the family, and sometimes leading the rosary. In her study of Church history, Liz knew that the sacraments of Anointing and Viaticum only came together as Extreme Unction – to be administered only by priests – in the Middle Ages. She wondered if a simple change to liturgical law might once again allow those in pastoral care of the sick to minister this sacrament. It could enable “people to have extra consolation at the time of their death.”
Liz also conducted many funeral services, and fondly remembers numerous experiences of this privileged space. One time in Bordertown, a woman was not brought up Catholic, but knew that her dying father was. She asked a Catholic nurse if anyone could give him “a blessing”. The nurse rang Liz, who called the priest to come from 80kms away to do the anointing. Then Liz stayed and prayed with him until the very end. She provided a safe environment for the daughter to grieve, then was asked to conduct his funeral.
Liz not only draws on her own life witness, but she has empowered and encouraged many others. She had a further word to say about the RMFP. At its conclusion, all participants received Certificates acknowledging their achievements in the various fields of Theology, Liturgy and Canon Law. Richard Morris, Dean of the South-East Region at the time, officiated at their presentation at a Sunday Eucharist in Mount Gambier. Among other things, she believes it is very important to honour these people and the qualifications they have attained.
However, Liz feels rather disappointed that their ministry training was not really recognised in the sense of being a pathway forward. It was the intention to prepare lay people for leadership in their parishes, but “the Church was not ready to hand over that leadership.” Her hopes for commissioning ceremonies in parishes were dashed, because those trained received no formal authorisation. As one woman said twelve months later: “I am not doing anything more than I already did before I began the Rural Ministry Programme”. So that is another reason why Liz believes that there is so much potential in the restoration of women deacons. It would enable recognition and sustainability for Church ministry into the future.