Sunday, afternoon 30th October 2011 will forever live in the memory. In the cycle of nature winter had begun, however in St. Wilfrid’s Parish Northwich it felt like the beginning of a new springtime. One hundred and twenty people had gathered for the launch of family groups. Among them was Eric who was grieving the death of his wife Mary; a few weeks earlier they celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of their marriage. He came along with his survival kit, a cylinder of oxygen, but in need of something more to find a fresh purpose in life. There was a longing for friendship and companionship; somehow he found it that evening, with people he had never met before. Eric was not a catholic, his wife was, and he came to her Church searching for friendship and love, and found it in a family for all, in which faces became names, friends you were meeting for the first time.
Eric joined one of the small family groups, where laughter, food friendship and fun brought a joy and happiness that he felt he would never again experience. In the few months before he died , the words of Jesus ‘love one another as I have loved you’ took on a fresh meaning not just for him, but for the parish community. It was a lesson on what matters in a community, especially a parish community that people look out for each other.
It never ceases to amaze me the amount of people in a parish who know people by sight, but not by name. It is a source of pastoral irritation when people are trying to describe someone they sit near at Church, see week in week out, and when that person is missing for a period of time, cannot give you a name or a way of contacting them. How can we say that parish is a ‘community of disciples’ that belong to each other in Christ if we do not know their name or anything about them?
The Passionist Family Group Movement began in response to a need to create a true sense of community in fulfilment of Jesus’ commandment for love and companionship in the lives of his disciples, and as practised in the early Christian communities who made a great impression in the culture and society of their times. Christians are not meant to live as isolated individuals; the great paradox of our times is the perceived absence of such community that causes people to drift away, or do not feel the inclination to participate.
An ongoing feature of my priestly ministry is the desire to create and sustain the lived experience of parish community. In essence it is simple, in that Jesus shows us the way, but in practice it can be often difficult to bring about. In hindsight the problem can be more to do with complexity instead of simplicity.
What attracted me to the Passionist Parish Family Movement, and still does, is its simplicity and being rooted in ordinary life. The aims are very simple, for people to get to know each other as members of the parish, to support each other, sharing joys and sorrow, building the Christian Community, as in the early Church: “Love one another as I have loved you”.
I have helped to initiate it in two very different types of Parish; St. Wilfrid’s a small town parish in Cheshire with a large influx of new families that came about with the development of new housing estates, and Our Lady’s Stockport a large inner town with an ageing population of very committed people, and a younger generation for whom the term ‘cultural Catholicism maybe more apt. The common factor in both cases is one of quiet transformation in peoples attitude to what parish is, an awareness to look out for new people, making them feel welcome and a greater response for appeals for help.
The motto of the Family Group Movement, ‘A Family for All’ is in tune with the freshness of approach of Pope Francis in having a missionary approach in our lives as Christians, being welcoming and inclusive, whereby we create a sense of community in the Church, and a sense of parish within the community. An occupational danger within all of us, especially in the Church, is over emphasis on organisation that can easily stifle the spirit. What makes the Family Groups unique is that of Movement of the Spirit over Organisation.
Anne expressed the essence of this in an email about her small parish of 75 active members in Suffolk who got to know each other through organising a series of simple events that are still ongoing, but who did not wish to be part of some national organisation. There is an echo here of how the Passionist Family Group Movement began in a small parish in Sydney in 1972.
Some years ago I was given a Lantern made of Pottery by my housekeeper in a small Cheshire parish. Whenever I light the candle in the Lantern, I am reminded of how much I learned from her to be a light of welcome and hospitality in the transformation of the Parish – A Family for All.
Fr. Pat Munroe
Family Groups in England and Wales, Chaplain