Every Thursday evening for the past five weeks, a group of about 70 parishioners from St Mary of the Assumption Parish in Keilor Downs have been faithfully gathering in the hall at St Mary Mackillop Primary School to consider ‘the case for Jesus’.
As part of an eight-week Bible study led by Assistant Priest Fr Marcus Goulding, participants have been viewing videos and working their way through course materials based on the book of the same name by Dr Brant Pitre of the Augustine Institute, which draws on evidence from both early Christian and non-Christian writings attesting to the authenticity, authorship and dating of the gospel, and investigates the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the proclamation of Christ’s divinity. Each session runs for 90–120 minutes, including video content, supper and group discussion.
The intergenerational group that has been gathering for the Bible study includes men and women at all stages of their journey in the Catholic faith, from those who are just beginning to ‘dip their toes in the water’ to those who have been faithful Catholics for many years, all of them seeking to learn more and go deeper, while connecting with other people of faith.
Jenny, an Arts student at the University of Melbourne, is a recent convert, having been baptised in April this year at the Easter Vigil. She says she got to know Fr Marcus ‘quite well’ when she did the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) with him in preparation for her baptism and was encouraged by that experience to sign up for the Case for Jesus series. ‘I’ve been interested in the Gospels as well because I hadn’t known very much about it, especially as a convert. I’m still very new.’
Miriam, a speech pathologist, read about the course in the parish bulletin at Mass. She was looking for a Bible study because while she had been regularly reading the gospels, she found she wanted more help with interpreting them. ‘So I thought a Bible study would be good.’
Jenny says she has ‘learnt something new’ at every session. When she gets home, she shares what she has discovered with her mum, who is also Catholic. ‘She’s got a whole bunch of questions. She can sort of learn it through me.’
Miriam has particularly appreciated the opportunity to ‘get to know the historical facts about the Bible’.
‘Having more knowledge about it and that more objective side is really nice,’ she says. While her reading of Scripture has previously been ‘very subjective,’ the course has given her more objective information about what she is reading, like timelines and dates. ‘It definitely helps to read [the course materials] and see how it all fits together.’
Both Jenny and Miriam say they would recommend doing a course like this to anyone who wanted to deepen their understanding of Scripture and grow in their faith.
‘You get a lot out of it. I’ve been learning a lot of things that I had absolutely no idea about,’ Jenny says, ‘especially, I think, as a new convert, things that other people probably already knew.’
Miriam is also grateful for the social aspects of the course, saying that it has helped her to connect with others in the parish she would not have otherwise got to know. ‘Usually when I go to Mass, I don’t really interact with other people,’ she says. ‘But coming here, I can see familiar faces and get to know them a bit more now, and say hello at Mass.’
She also finds that she is more confident in talking to her family or friends ‘who are kind of Catholic but maybe not diving too deep into it’.
‘It’s really nice to talk about the evidence,' she says, and to see them respond positively to ‘proof of the faith’.
You get a lot out of it. I’ve been learning a lot of things that I had absolutely no idea about.
Fr Marcus has been in the parish for a year, assisting Parish Priest Mgr Charles Portelli, and this is the second formation series he’s run in that time. The first series—a 10-week course called Parousia: The Bible and the Mass, produced by the St Paul Center in the United States—was run during Lent and Easter this year. ‘It was longer than this,’ he says, ‘and we had really good attendance; we had like 50 people attending.’
‘I started with the Mass because I thought, this is something that’s common to everyone and it’s great to help people understand the Mass more ... Then when we finished that, everyone was like, “Can we do more? We want more.” So it was really their demand. It was the parishioners who wanted more. And I love teaching the faith as well.’
Explaining the value of courses such as these for people’s faith formation, he points to ‘the whole thing about knowledge and love. In order to love God, we need to know who he is. And it’s the same in human relationships. To love someone, you grow in knowledge of them. And sometimes, the more you know someone, the less you love them. But usually, like when you’re dating, the whole point of dating is that you’re getting to know the person. And then over time you gradually fall more in love with them. And to love God—well, it’s possible without knowing everything, but it helps to know some key things. And one of the biggest struggles in the pews is we have so many people who have very minimal formation in faith.’
After the success of the first series on the Mass, and recognising both the demand and the need for more, Fr Marcus considered what he might offer as a follow-up. ‘We did the Mass,’ he says. ‘What’s another thing, in addition to the liturgy, that everyone has contact with but doesn’t necessarily understand particularly well? Scripture.’
In order to love God, we need to know who he is.
Fr Marcus had read Dr Pitre’s book on a retreat and was impressed by the way it provided ‘tangible, factual evidence from the Old Testament to show who Jesus is. It makes the Old Testament accessible to people; it makes the gospels more accessible, and that means that people are going to get more from it when they … hear the Word at Mass.’
Based on his experience, Fr Marcus highly recommends offering courses such as these at a parish level. After he ran the Parousia course at Lent and Easter, one of his friends, another priest, was inspired to try it in his parish too. ‘And one of the things I said [to him] was, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Use places like the Augustine Institute, the St Paul Center, Formed. They’ve got so many good resources out there. We don’t have to write it. We don’t have to spend ages coming up with the talks. You just get the resource and guide the discussion.” And that’s all I really do. Yes, I know the content, and I’ve got my own knowledge that I bring to it, but really I just guide the discussion of the content that’s in the video.’
Fr Marcus says the social side of running a course such as this is also very valuable. ‘People are desperate to know other Catholics who are walking in the same life,’ he says, ‘and so many people here, they see each other at Mass, but they don’t necessarily know each other well.’
He believes many Catholics can feel quite isolated. ‘You know, they don’t know anyone else in their workplace or even in their family who goes to Mass. So I’ve always thought that community-building … on the social side of parish life is super important. And you can do that while also teaching.’
While acknowledging that it can be beneficial to just do social things, he points out that a sense of community can also be built around ‘a catechetical thing, or around a spiritual thing or a prayer thing. It doesn’t have to just be one or the other. And it also gives them something to talk about. When people come to something like this, they don’t know anyone else. How do you start talking to a stranger? So when you give them the opportunity to talk around content like this, it gives them a way in to talk to the people around them, and then, all of a sudden, their backstory comes out, and they get to know each other better.’
Fr Marcus is heartened by the ongoing enthusiasm and commitment shown by participants in the Bible study. ‘Attendance hasn’t dropped,’ he says. ‘I’m always amazed by how people are so thirsty for the truth. They want to be taught the faith. Often, I think, as priests, we can underestimate what our people are capable of, and also what they want.
‘They want to know the answers to the big questions. Because people ask them those questions, and they feel ill equipped. Our job [as priests] is to equip the laity to do their job. And one of the ways we do that is by teaching them to pray, but also teaching the truth.’
I’m always amazed by how people are so thirsty for the truth. They want to be taught the faith. Often, we can underestimate what our people are capable of, and also what they want.
Fr Marcus is already seeing the fruit of the course in the life of the parish. ‘I see people talking to each other after Mass who previously didn’t know each other. So I can see the social bonds being built,’ he says.
After the first course on the Mass, he also noticed ‘very quickly a deeper participation in the Mass, not necessarily more people’ but a greater, more meaningful engagement.
Fr Marcus hopes to offer similar courses in the future. ‘As a priest, it’s so hard to balance how much of anything you do … There are so many good things to do.’ When parishioners first expressed a desire for a Bible study, he was already running RCIA and a youth group and quickly realised he couldn’t realistically commit to running a weekly Bible study throughout the year too. But he thought, ‘I can do something that’s time-limited, that goes for eight weeks twice a year.’
He’s hopeful that these experiences might encourage parishioners ‘to start their own initiatives, to start their own studies, to use some of the resources that we’re using or the Bible in a Year podcast, [or some of the other] Bible studies that Ascension Press have put out. They could do this on their own, in small groups; they don’t need me. So, hopefully it starts something: you give them something, and they can do the rest.’
Melbourne Catholic26 July 2023
Christian Bergmann06 June 2023