The upper room of a pub has a long history of being the starting place for change. The Boston Tea Party which led to the American Revolution started at the Green Dragon in Boston. If you wanted to join King Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade to the Holy Land, your journey began at the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham. King Charles I skipping his overnight stay bill at The White Hart Royal of Gloucestershire in 1644 may have contributed to his execution.

It’s not all political though; important engineering and scientific discoveries have been announced or planned in pubs. Francis Crick and James Watson announced their discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 at The Eagle, Cambridge. The first public railway was planned in The George and Dragon in North Yorkshire. Some of the most popular songs were written and debuted in pubs: think of The Dove in London where Rule, Britannia! was written and the many Australian bands who spent their formative years playing music at their local before hitting the world stage (AC/DC, INXS, The Choirboys and Cold Chisel to name a few).

Religion, however, is not usually expected in a pub. Mind you, I would argue that one of the first “pub reviewers” in Melbourne was Archbishop James Goold, the first Archbishop of Melbourne, who left fair but sometimes rather salty reviews in his diary regarding the accommodation, service and quality of food at the inns and pubs he stayed at during his travels. His reviews certainly would have made Zomato and Google proud. Religion in a pub may have been “normal” in nineteenth century Melbourne, but it is safe to say that in 2021 one doesn’t really expect to hear the Gospel with one’s Gin and Tonic.

Of course, it’s not only pubs and bars. As a priest I’ve come to delight in how seeing openly religious people in public can shock Australian society, often in very amusing ways. The surprise on people’s faces at being found outside of your “allocated religious space” used to perturb me at first, but has become something I’ve learned to enjoy. Apparently, God is not supposed to be found in pubs and bars – much less the sight of priests, friars, nuns and other religious enjoying a pint and conversation with young adults. Que horror!

Indeed, pubs can be dangerous places. After all, it’s where revolutions and big ideas can seize the imagination and deeply move people.

Taking place each month at the European Bier Café in the city, Theology at the Pub draws young adults from 18 to 35 to their own “upper room” to hear guest speakers both local and international (like Pints with Aquinas’ Matt Fradd and Christopher Check of Catholic Answers) discuss theology, history, apologetics, ethics, social issues, living out our faith and growing deeper in prayer. A meal and a drink are shared, a talk is heard and hopefully, a heart is set aflame. Questions and lively discussions break out, often broken with periods of laughter resounding through the room with new friends being made. I often sit back and wonder what those downstairs or peeking into the room as they make their trip to the bathroom just outside are thinking. Many have slipped in and stayed for me long enough to find out.

I continue to find it to be a source of hope and great joy as I watch this flower of the New Evangelisation bloom. This is a lay group doing what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called for in Apostolicam Actuositatem:

They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardour of the spirit of Christ. (§2)

T@P, as it is affectionately known, is a regular, Catholic event, free to attend and managed by a group of young laypeople. Its purpose is both social and formative – it aims to evangelise young Christians so that their lives, and others through them, may be sanctified and the temporal order may be rightly ordered to Christ. My fortunate role as their chaplain is to pray for them, be present and give advice when needed, as other priests have done before me.

However, given COVID has removed the possibility of meeting in person, the team decided that if you can’t come to the pub, then we will bring the pub to you, with the last two talks livestreamed from the T@P Facebook page.

At the first online session, Sr Mary Helen OP gave a talk on the Virtue of Hope and how we can all strive toward making acts of hope in our daily lives. Viewers expressed how Sr Mary Helen’s words helped them push through the difficult days of another lockdown and how to hold onto hope.

Next came Monsignor Joseph Takchi, a Maronite priest, who spoke about the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. This opened for many how broad the Church is with its different rites and traditions, yet united in the same profession of faith. Questions poured in as people began to explore the different rites and their distinct theologies, spiritualties and laws; each characterised by its own linguistic and cultural difference from each other. For some, it was an eye-opening realisation that the Church is far larger than just the Latin Rite of the West.

The turn to an online format is clearly meeting a need and reaching a wider audience: the first talk on “hope” reached 1,500 people and the second on the Eastern Catholic Churches jumped to 2,500 people, and that doesn’t include the podcast listeners who can download and listen to the talk afterwards.

With the prospect of lockdowns coming to an end, I find myself looking forward even more to these gatherings in that “upper room” at the European Bier Café. After often hard weeks of ministry, I find it reminds me of where the Church began and gives me a shot of hope. (I’m also sure Archbishop Goold would agree that the food, service and wide selection of drinks at the European Bier Café are great too.)

In another upper room on the day of Pentecost, the disciples’ hearts were filled with the Holy Spirit and they went forth to proclaim Christ to the ends of the earth. As we pack up the room and the kind staff check if we need anything, I watch as others leave with their hearts set aflame, hopefully to spread that flame across Melbourne and the world.

Theology at the Pub (T@P) is a monthly event for 18-35 year olds. It’s a chance to listen to terrific guest speakers talking about faith, relationships, prayer, ethics, politics, sexuality and much more. The talks are engaging and relevant and are followed by Q+A with the speaker and plenty of discussion with friends.

Follow T@P on Facebook to stream their online events, including their next event on Monday 4 October with guest speaker Fr Marcus Goulding speaking on “Suffering Like a Saint”. Grab a drink and join the talk online at 7.30pm.