For many Catholic parish communities around the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted regular parish gatherings and the celebration of Mass at various times over the past 18 months.
But in the regional Victorian town of Echuca, located in the Diocese of Sandhurst, the limitations imposed by lockdowns have spurred on a local parish men’s group to grow in number and to become a source of inspiration and hope for many.
One of the St Mary’s Parish men’s group organisers, Doug Black, said although the closure of churches during lockdowns has been difficult, it has also demonstrated the importance of men coming together in prayer and fellowship.
“Particularly during the Victorian COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, many viewed the men’s group gatherings as a real lifeline for them,” he said.
The parish has facilitated men’s gatherings for a number of years, initially in an informal and infrequent manner. In 2014, a regular group of men began to meet in the parish or at each other’s homes.
“These meetings varied in frequency from fortnightly to monthly and occasionally a men’s breakfast was held to encourage greater numbers of men to become involved,” Doug explained.
In 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions prohibited face-to-face gatherings, the group began to meet online via Zoom. It turned out to be a masterstroke.
“The first meeting was a very positive one and the decision was then made to meet via Zoom every week, on Saturday mornings,” Doug said.
“Since that time, the group has attracted more men. We have one man from Wangaratta and several men from Melbourne who attend each week.”
Over the past 18 months, the group has virtually doubled in the number of regular attendees, with up to 30 men now coming together every week. Where possible, the group will meet in person while also hosting a Zoom meeting simultaneously, allowing those from other locations to participate.
The meetings include music, prayer, sharing and reflection on the upcoming Sunday Gospel passage, and discussions about practical assistance needed within the parish community.
During August, the group will re-structure its meetings slightly, as it plans to be a hosting site for the Australian Catholic Men’s Gathering over three consecutive Saturdays.
Doug said the men’s group has been a source of many blessings to those involved, and to the parish.
“When COVID-19 restrictions prevented access to the weekly Mass and Eucharist, the Saturday morning sessions were ‘church’ for us,” he said.
“The men have grown closer to each other, and deep friendships have formed, enabling men to share their deep thoughts and needs and to support each other. We have all grown in our faith through the sharing of Scripture and discussion and men are striving to grow in faith during their day-to-day lives.
“There is greater participation in the parish by all of the men within the group. The success of the men’s group has also inspired others in the parish, and now a new women’s prayer group has been formed.”
In July, the men took time to reflect upon how their participation in the group had affected them. Some of their testimonies are shared below:
Being a part of the St Mary's Echuca men's group since last year has meant I have a band of brothers with whom I could share fellowship, even during lockdown – there was no Mass, we weren't allowed to meet in person – but the friendship and fellowship of the Echuca men's group gave me encouragement, comfort, spiritual nourishment and something to look forward to!
After years of having tried numerous avenues to get in touch with our Church, this has been so far the most rewarding experience ever… I cannot think how I could go on as a Christian without my new family of a ‘few good men’.
I have looked forward to Saturday mornings as a chance to meet with and chat with men who are not shy about talking about things spiritual in their lives – their belief in God and their church-going practices.
Our Echuca gathering provides the opportunity to share friendship and hospitality with our fellow parishioners from different backgrounds and ages. The gathering provides an opportunity for reflection on scripture during the week and the chance for meaningful interpretation and discussion… Each week provides an uplifting experience and a reminder of daily prayer and reflection.
Doug said he hopes the group can continue to grow and thrive into the future, as well as be a source of encouragement to other men’s groups around the country, particularly those that are new or struggling to continue amidst challenging COVID-19 restrictions.
“My hope for the future of the men’s group is growth in our individual faith journeys, our brotherly bond, the depth of our sharing, the support and love given to each other and our families, the service we can offer the parish and community and finally growth in numbers that might lead to the formation of more new groups,” he said.
Words: Matthew Biddle
Images: Members of the Echuca Men’s Group met on a local river in 2016.
A recent Men’s Group meeting held online via Zoom.