By all accounts, Oblate Father John Morin has led a full life.
He is 88 and he spent 40 years as a missionary in Haiti. After coming to New Orleans three years ago, he has celebrated daily Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on North Rampart Street and has coordinated spiritual ministry for hundreds of Haitian Catholics in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
So when Father Morin walked into a Notre Dame Seminary classroom in January to brush up on the synoptic Gospels (St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. Luke) – simply because he felt his preaching had grown a little dry – he did more than turn the heads of his seminarian classmates.
They sensed immediately his passion, positive attitude and deep well of spirituality.
“To see priests coming back and continuing to learn serves as a good example for us that our intellectual formation as priests will never stop,” said seminarian Matthew Graham of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. “He also brought some good pastoral insights in relation to his own life.”
Father Morin never delivers a homily from prepared notes. He gets ready to preach by reading and praying over the Scriptures to get a sense of what God is asking him to say.
“For the past couple of years, I felt I had fallen into a biblical rut, so to say,” Father Morin said. “I preach every day and sometimes twice a day, so I always see the same biblical texts and Jesus saying the same things. I knew the Bible says a lot more than that, and I didn’t know what to do. I had books, and books are good, but I thought about taking a course.”
Someone suggested that he investigate the course offerings at Notre Dame Seminary, and Father Morin stumbled across one he thought would benefit him greatly: “The Synoptic Gospels and Acts,” taught by Dr. Nathan Eubank.
“I had a choice between the synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of St. John,” Father Morin said. “I was attracted to both, but I decided to take the synoptics, and if I’m still around next year, I’ll take the Gospel of St. John.”
“When you’re 88, you don’t buy green bananas,” Father Morin said, laughing.
Amazed by his youthfulness
Eubank, the professor, is just 34, but he was amazed that someone who had been in ministry in Haiti for so many years was interested in taking his Scripture course. Father Morin essentially audited the course, meaning he attended all the classes and did all the required reading but did not have to take any tests or write any papers.
Talk about the best of both worlds.
“Throughout the class he was very inquisitive and studious, and he jumped in alongside the students as if he were one of them,” Eubank said. “It really was a great sign for the seminarians to see someone 60 years down the road from where they are trying to learn and asking questions – and really wanting to hear the answers.”
Did some of the seminarians ask Father Morin to take a test or write a paper for them?
“Some of them probably should have,” Eubank said as he graded final papers.
Father Morin said soaking up the knowledge without the pressure of taking tests or writing papers was “a pleasure.”
“I looked forward to it and I’m sorry it ended so fast,” he said. “I thought we would go on like in the old days till the end of June. It was a great experience. What was good about this course was that it was early – from 8 to 9 in the morning, three days a week – so I could get back and do my work.”
When he went to the seminary in the 1940s, Father Morin said the formation model emphasized the need to defend the Catholic faith. He said what he liked the most about the current course was that Eubank taught the class that the Gospels are to be “lived.”
“We also learned the way things were at the time, why Jesus said certain things and how the various groups like the Pharisees and the Sadducees thought,” Father Morin said. “There was a lot of historical background to help us understand why people were doing what they were doing. It was very, very rich.”
One of the things Father Morin always tries to do when he reads Scripture is to place himself in the story, as if he were an apostle or a bystander and was witnessing the action for the first time.
“The (Vatican) Council documents say when you open your Gospel, you may think you’re reading the Gospel, but through faith you are seeing Christ,” Father Morin said. “You are there. When you’re reading about Cana, you’re at Cana, and you see what Christ is seeing and doing. I think that I’m there at the Transfiguration. When I pray, I pray that way.
“When I preach, that’s what I tell people – ‘I was there. This is what I saw and heard.’ The big thing is to get people to know Christ, because the life of a Catholic is following Christ.”
Eubank said Father Morin’s presence was a special gift to his much younger classmates.
“It brought a certain electricity to the room to see someone who has been in priestly ministry for decades,” Eubank said. “Sometimes seminarians look at their education as a hurdle to be crossed and then left behind. What his presence showed everyone was that we’re all lifetime learners.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.