"So, at coffee and doughnuts after Mass, I said to Deacon Art, 'Can you please explain this line to me?'" said Mr. Graham.
Deacon Arthur Miller, who was then recently assigned to the parish, "explained it beautifully," Mr. Graham said. And that, according to Mr. Graham, is when Deacon Miller said, "You know, we ought to get a Bible study going here."
Now, about every two weeks, between 50 and 100 people from Simsbury, West Hartford, Canton, and Hartford, and even Massachusetts visit the parish center to enjoy 90 minutes of reading and interpreting the Bible with Deacon Miller.
Enjoy? Yes, in fact, at a session on Sept. 19, no one wanted to leave when 8 o'clock rolled around, even after sitting on folding chairs since 6:30 p.m. without a break.
What's going on here?
Brian Downs, one of the regular attendees from Simsbury, said he's been coming since he graduated from college in May because his father recommended it. "In CCD, we didn't really go that in depth with the actual Scriptures," Mr. Downs said. He credits Deacon Miller for bringing the word of God to life.
"He's full of energy, and his love for the faith and for God is infectious," he said. "I think he could get anyone off the street, and they could be an atheist, and they could agree with at least something that he says."
The evening begins with 30 minutes of prayer - not quiet or meditative or rote prayer - but, on this occasion, at least, a lively session led by an animated Deacon Miller exhorting everyone to "pray for yourselves first."
"All too often, we spend our time praying for others," he said. "If we can completely just pray for ourselves, all the other stuff will fall in its place, because we will be that instrument that God needs to put us in the lives of others."
The group was focusing this session on the Gospel of Mark, but they also discussed John's Gospel, specifically John 6:52-69, when Jesus' hearers are horrified at his insistence that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood "lives in me and I live in him." When Jesus asks Peter if he, too, rejects this teaching, Peter says, "Lord, who [else] shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life."
This response shows Jesus that Peter has faith that surpasses understanding. Deacon Miller interpreted Peter's thoughts as, "I don't understand, but I know this: I know who you are."
Theology, Deacon Miller said, is defined as "faith seeking understanding." But complete understanding is impossible, he said.
"I don't know what I don't know, but I do know what I do know," he said. "I know he's my Lord and Savior."
The group also discussed Mark 7:31-37, in which Jesus heals a deaf man who also has a speech impediment. "God wants us all to hear, because unless you hear, you cannot speak," Deacon Miller said. "You cannot tell the truth if you are not willing to hear the truth."
He likened the church building to a locker room before a game. "We come into the locker room so we can go out and get into the game," he said.
Ulrich Decher, a nuclear scientist from West Granby, comes regularly with his wife, Helen, a musician. He is not Catholic; she is. "Deacon Art is a talent," Mr. Decher said. "He brings the Bible to life, really. I'm a scientist, so I describe faith as trying to understand things, and science is the same way."
Mrs. Decher said, "Deacon Art has the gift of making the Bible a living document." She said the parish is blessed to have a variety of talents among its clergy. "We now have a renowned theologian as our pastor, Father Frank Matera," she said. "The priests, the deacons, each has a special talent, special gift, and they're sharing them with us in different ways."
She said the Bible study program helps her become a "better version" of herself. "Father Matera says we're all saints, and I just think this helps me on that road."
Father Matera, who came to St. Mary Parish in June after 24 years at The Catholic University of America in Washington, said of Deacon Miller's program, "I think what he's been able to do is show the relationship between the biblical text and everyday life. So, when he's teaching, he's always making very valuable applications to the lives of people."
Annemarie Brimmer, a parishioner, said the program can be summed up in a verse from Proverbs 27:17: "As iron sharpens iron, so man sharpens his fellow man."
"This was the spark that ignited my transformation," she said. "I came here; I rediscovered Catholicism; I joined a book club for that; and then I went to healing Masses at St. Thomas Seminary. That led to praying with the charismatic renewal team there. But it all started here. This was the spark that started it."
Parishioner Jack Voorvaart said, "I've got a story to tell you. I had not been to church for 17 years, and my wife brought me down here one night kicking and screaming. I did not want to come down here. I came and listened to Deacon Art, made a retreat, got back in the Church. This is what I've been missing in the Church."
Deacon Miller said, "People are thirsty to know God. They are so thirsty to be fed."
He insisted that people do not come to hear him talk. "They come because of to whom I'm pointing, which means that that's transferable to every church in our archdiocese and in our country and in the nation. We as clergy and baptizers are supposed to be the best pointers. That's how you evangelize; you point to how God is involved in their lives."
He said it is called Bible study, but it is really faith building. "We build our faith because Monday's coming," he said. "The moment will come in everyone's life when your faith comes face to face with a problem, an issue, a disease, a death, a loss of job. And unless your faith has been built, that situation, that circumstance is going to overcome your faith, instead of your faith overcoming the circumstance."
The next faith-building Bible study session with Deacon Miller is scheduled for 6:30-8 p.m. Nov. 7 in the parish center, 492 Hopmeadow St. It is open to the public. Information is available online at http://www.stmarysimsbury.org under the "Bible Study Groups" section of the "Faith Formation" tab.
Reprinted with permission of The Catholic Transcript, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.