On Saturday 27 May, a group of parishes and communities in Melbourne’s east came together for an inspiring afternoon of prayer, worship and teaching, in anticipation of the feast of Pentecost. Inspired by the words of the Prophet Isaiah—‘Awake, awake, put on your strength’ (Isaiah 52:1)— ‘Awaken’ was an opportunity not just to reflect on the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, but also to draw closer to the transforming presence and power of God.

More than 350 people from 28 different parishes and communities took part in the event, which took place at Avila College in Mount Waverley and was jointly hosted by St Benedict’s Burwood, St Scholastica’s Bennetswood, Holy Family Mount Waverley, St Christopher’s Syndal, Holy Saviour Vermont South, St Francis Xavier and St Clare Box Hill and the Disciples of Jesus Covenant Community.

Theophil Xavier, a parishioner at St Scholastica’s and St Benedict’s, was coordinator of the event, which she says came together surprisingly quickly, with only four weeks between the first official meeting of the planning team to the day of the event. ‘It was exciting,’ she says, ‘but there were a lot of the finer details that we had to think about.

‘I really could feel there was a guiding Spirit just helping us through it, because everything just worked out really quickly and happened so beautifully. You could get a sense that this was something that God had already planted in our hearts, and we were just walking in line with what he wanted to be done.’

The idea for the event came about through conversations between her parish priest, Fr Dan Serratore MGL, and Fr Justel Callos from Holy Family Mount Waverley and Fr Ralph Beserwitch SAC from St Christopher’s Syndal.

Theophil was excited when Fr Dan, recognising her ‘heart for ministry’, asked her to coordinate the Awaken event. ‘I just felt so inspired with that vision of bringing the Church together’, she says. Since COVID, she had recognised some ‘dryness’ and perhaps a reluctance for people to gather. ‘So the idea of bringing [people] together and the idea of a renewal of our spirits, especially for Pentecost, felt like this beautiful vision.’

The planning team was small but focussed, with representatives from all the host parishes. While each community contributed different gifts, there was a unity of vision from the outset. ‘Even when we were brainstorming,’ Theophil says, ‘the theme that kept coming up for us was: we want to create an occasion or an event where people can experience God and where they walk away feeling enriched, they walk away feeling transformed.’

They were also in agreement that that this would be a ‘family event’, welcoming all ages, ‘from little kids to the older, mature parishioners’. Theophil had noticed that while there are often big events for kids and youth, ‘sometimes the older parishioners miss out’. The vision for Awaken was that it would be ‘for everyone, maybe like a mini-World Youth Day, but for the whole Church’.

Mary Tan, a parishioner at St Christopher’s Syndal, was part of the planning team and coordinated the children’s program on the day. More than 50 kids, from kinder to Year 6, ended up partipating in a program that included icebreaker games, discussions about the Holy Spirit and Pentecost, craft activities, more games, and opportunities for praise and worship, ‘because we also wanted them to have that prayerful experience’.

Commenting on how full the auditorium was on the day, Mary says it was wonderful ‘to see that the Church is alive, you know … The atmosphere was just electrifying. It was prayerful and it was joyful, and I think people received a lot.’

She hopes that participants will bring the inspiration they received back into their own communities.

What we need is to be able to create the opportunities, and then the people who come will be able to go back and ignite their parishes.

Through the planning stages, Mary could see the Holy Spirit at work in ‘getting the speakers’ and in ‘the number of volunteers who were able and willing to sacrifice their time.’ And on the day, during a prayer session among the volunteers, ‘it was so good to see that people were really wanting the Holy Spirit and trusting in the Holy Spirit to move that whole event.’ The way all the different parishes were able to ‘come and work together cohesively’, she says, was ‘in itself is also the work of the Holy Spirit.’

Theophil was also impressed by the willingness of so many people to volunteer, and by the way every need was met through the different contributions of each community. So, for example, St Christopher’s, who ‘have a very vibrant kids’ ministry’, offered to coordinate the children’s program. Fr James from St Francis and St Clare looked after all the liturgical aspects, including Adoration and organising priests for Reconciliation. Holy Family offered to look after hospitality ‘because they know that area really well’ and were the closest parish to Avila College. They also did the carpark ushering, along with the Knights of the Southern Cross, who ‘also came through and offered their support’.

She was struck by the way the event gathered momentum through word of mouth and ‘people just responded’. It was encouraging, she says, ‘to see that people wanted this and we didn’t have to push it and we didn’t have to convince them.’

Commenting on the ‘hunger’ she senses is out there, Theophil explains that she was getting emails on the day from people wanting to know if they could still come, ‘and even before that, I had to keep increasing the tickets … It really felt like people were wanting more. And then, on the day, our workshops were just overflowing.’

Along with opportunities to gather together for prayer and worship, and to hear from keynote speakers, there were workshops for men, women, parents and youth, and on prayer, mental health, growing in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and practical wisdom for discernment. Theophil was particularly pleased by the popularity of the last two of these, with more than 50 people attending the discernment workshop ‘all crammed up in this one classroom, and we had to keep adding more and more seats to it … The other workshop that was over-filled was the one on the Holy Spirit—for that we actually had over 120 people, so we ended up having it in the main hall,’ she says.

You know, discernment is about aligning yourself to the will of God, and just to see that people are not just going with the flow and not just wanting to do whatever makes them happy … [but] were really wanting to know: What is God’s will for me? … For me, just seeing that openness, that willingness, was very emotional because I could see a shift that’s happening where people are wanting not just to be in God’s presence, but also to take on the mantle and go forward.

That is certainly true for Kelly Hurtz, who started attending St Benedict’s online during COVID and whose involvement with the Church continues to grow and deepen. Kelly was invited to give a testimony at Awaken on the ways she has experienced the Holy Spirit in her life, an opportunity she jumped at. ‘To have people come together and take the time to really embrace the Holy Spirit in their everyday life is a really incredible opportunity,’ she says.

Kelly also volunteered to help on the day with the prayer ministry—a highlight for her. ‘You just felt that people’s lives were being touched in that moment … To be a witness to that, to see that God’s not just talking to me or working in my life but he was working in everybody’s life there, and he was trying to reach and uplift so many people, was incredible.’

Like Theophil, she sensed that people were ‘hungry’. ‘I know that’s where my life is. I’m wanting more. I’m wanting more of the Holy Spirit. I’m wanting more of God in my life … I have this sense of being called to do more.’

Kelly helps to lead an Alpha course in her parish, and also serves on the welcome and hospitality teams at Mass, but is nevertheless open to other opportunities to enter more deeply into the life and mission of her community.

I feel like I’ve finally found my place, and how I can contribute, and I think the more you get involved, the more you get called to do … God’s calling me to get more involved … and I’m just saying, ‘Yes, whatever you want.’ I’m just going to keep saying yes.

Theophil also feels called ‘to step out’ more into the Church’s mission, ‘to step out and create opportunities for people to experience God’. Watching the way the event came together, and seeing so many people immersed in prayer and worship—with the queue for prayer ministry extending from the front of the auditorium right to the back—gave her ‘immense joy’.

She recounts how keynote speaker Rob Falzone, founder of Men Alive, spoke in his address about being shown an image in prayer of a half-collapsed church and wondering what it meant. His first thought was that it was the Church in ruins, but eventually the real meaning came to him: it was not the Church in ruins but the Church under construction.

For Theophil, this story resonates with her experience of Awaken: ‘I could see that this was the Church that was being constructed. God is doing something. We always say, “The harvest is plenty, the labourers are few,” and here people were really equipping themselves to go out and start the harvest, to start constructing, to start rebuilding and working on God’s kingdom. To me that was the highlight.’

Kelly would love for more people to feel the joy and satisfaction that she has felt as she’s become more involved in the Church. ‘Whatever your parish is, find ways to get involved,’ she advises, ‘because there’s always a need and we’ve all got different gifts; there’s always something that we can do and contribute … The amazing thing with the Holy Spirit is that it’s God working through us.’