Father Thinh Nguyen has not been at St Scholastica’s in Bennettswood for long, describing himself as ‘a four-month baby’, but already he has been struck by the warm welcome of the community, as well the dedication of parishioners and the depth of their faith. Together they are beginning to discern the way ahead. ‘My dream,’ Fr Thinh says, ‘is that our parishioners may experience a personal encounter with Christ by getting to know him, fall in love with him and serve him.’

After eight rewarding years as a formator at Corpus Christi College (the regional seminary), Fr Thinh is delighted to be back in parish ministry: ‘The joy for me is to be able to connect to people. I do a lot of pastoral visits at home, especially elderly people—communion, anointing the sick. That brings me joy, to be able to be Christ to them in a special way.’ But the transition has not been without its challenges. During his years at the seminary, he says, ‘I lost that experience in running a parish. I had to relearn how to be a parish priest again.’ Moving from the seminary, where he lived in community with three or four other priests, to life as a sole parish priest has also been an adjustment: ‘A challenge for me is to learn to live on my own and enjoy my own solitude.’

But he is very thankful to be surrounded and supported by such faithful parishioners and volunteers. ‘The people are very committed, with a very lively faith, and are trying their best to bring people together.’ There are many dedicated volunteers among the parish community. A social committee, for instance, organises events such as a seniors’ lunch, men’s and ladies’ dinners and morning tea after Mass. ‘These small things bring the parish alive. After COVID, the spirit of the community was not that great, but their faithfulness really brings joy and hope to us, that the parish is still going, still alive and we’re still here.’

Bennettswood has experienced some significant changes in the past twenty years. The population is ageing as homes in the area become more expensive and slip beyond the reach of many young families. The parish school, for instance, used to be quite large, ‘but now it’s a very small number, 130 kids. So we’re trying to do something to bring more young families to our parish.’ The area has also become more culturally diverse: ‘We have more Asian people coming in—a lot of Indian and Sri Lankan people, because they go to Deakin University. A lot of that age group—uni students. Also we have a lot of Malaysian and Singaporeans. It’s a very multicultural parish.’

‘The first priority for us is to make people welcome to our church,’ says Fr Thinh. ‘How do we make this an inviting church?’ One simple response has been to station people at the back of the church to welcome people to Mass. They are also looking at ways to encourage older people back to Mass after COVID. ‘We want the parishioners to return to church and feel comfortable that this is a safe place for worship. We also want to encourage the parents of our school children to come to Mass, and this is a new challenge for us.’

The parish has recently formed a missionary renewal team to lead their evangelisation efforts. ‘They are my core team. I can bounce around ideas on what needs to be done in the parish with people who I know well and who have been in the parish for a long time. One of the things we want to do is Alpha. We are also trying hard to get the RCIA going at the moment because we have three people who want to become Catholic. I want to make them feel that they are important.’

Given Fr Thinh’s background in university chaplaincy, and the proximity of Deakin University’s Burwood campus, he is also keen to develop a ministry to young adults. Currently, the church is used once a week for ‘Mass on Campus’ with Fr Nicholas Dillon from St Philip’s in Blackburn North, with a small group of students attending regularly. Fr Thinh would like to set up a young adults group, where students can meet after Mass for dinner, followed by faith formation. ‘But I’m trying to find the right person to lead this. The hardest thing I’ve found is to find the right person for the job.’

As God’s plans for St Scholastica’s continue to reveal themselves, Fr Thinh would welcome our prayers: ‘Pray that our parishioners may open their hearts to the gifts of the Holy Spirit so that they know what they ought to do, and for the strength and courage to faithfully do it. Also pray that our parish community may know its true identity by following Jesus in mission to the world.’