(An article from Alternatives, a newsletter of the Catholic Adult Education Centre, Sydney. April, 2002)
In this article, Fr Peter McGrath cp, founder of the Passionist Family Group Movement, explores the value of family groups and shares what many are experiencing – belonging to a true Christian community.

Here’s what’s working in your neck of the woods!” Sounds like the weather report from American TV. There is a question behind this statement: What absolutely has to work?

Pope John Paul 11 and the Bishops, the local leaders of our Christian community, have said time and again, “The family has to work, has to live, breathe, love and be present. Without the embrace of the family, human souls are desperate.”
The challenge is to put these words into action. To find ways to give support to the nuclear family and increase the community spirit among people so that we realise that fundamentally we are all brothers and sisters, belonging to the one family – the human race.

I was in America on 11th September, 2001. I was with the New York Fire Dept. before and after. I said Mass for over 2,500 people on the Sunday after that terrible day and never, never in my life have I been more convinced of the desperate need we all have to belong. To belong to a family, an extended family, a living, breathing, loving community.

When all the people in that large congregation of St Maximilan Kolbe, Scarborough, Maine, joined hands at the Lord’s Prayer, there was a unity forged by grief and pain. The presence of Christ crucified in His people, that words could never express. We were turned in mind and heart to the arms and forgiveness of the Father of the Prodigal Son. Through the falling buildings, the crashing planes, the smoke, the flame, and the ash, our Father was embracing his daughters and his sons violently taken from this world. On that Sunday, I began the Family Groups in the 435th parish in the world.

When I left Scarborough I knew that at least 300 families were now joined together with a bond of friendship and love that would grow in their personal lives and in their parish.

It has been the same wherever we have had the privilege of establishing the Passionist Family Group Movement. I began this very simple Gospel-centered community building in my little parish of St Anthony in the Fields, Terrey Hills in 1973. As the little community grew amid the gum trees, the wattle and Skippy the Kangaroo, there was a great need to foster the community. This meant bringing together families of all shapes and sizes, solo and dual, widows and widowers, young and old, single and divorced – as our Family Group motto says –¬† “A Family for All”.

It was not until 1982 that we were invited to St Bernadette’s, Castle Hill, to explain our little Family Groups. We turned the question back on the 350 people who gathered. What did they need in their parish?

With the odd exception, the overwhelming replies fell into two categories.

“We really don’t know each other. Yes, we know a few, particularly if we have children at the primary school. But, in the main, we don’t know each other. We come to Church, shake hands at the greeting of peace with the people in front of us, then shoot through in our cars as soon as Mass is over.”

“Therefore, when an accident occurs, or a death or a marriage breakdown, when names are mentioned, they are just names. They don’t mean anything to us. So we can’t support each other. Because we don’t know each other, we are frightened to intrude. People are left to battle for themselves.”

Our answer to our Castle Hill people was simple, “We think that the Family Groups can help your parish. The aims are simple. Firstly, to get people to know each other, changing names into faces and faces into friends. Secondly, to support each other in practical ways, loving as the early Christians loved. Thirdly, to encourage our children to belong and to experience a true Christian community, and lastly, in so doing, to build up the Christian community of our parish.”

I can honestly say that wherever we have gone in Australia, New Zealand, UK, Ireland and the USA, the needs have been the same. You ask what do Family Groups do? The answer is, “fulfill the aims”. What I have written is words; the reality of a Family Group is an experience and has to be tried in order to be tested.

AIMS

To get to know other members of the Parish

To support each other sharing each others joys and sorrows and so building the Christian community as in the early Church

To involve our children in our Christian sharing directly, if possible. If not, then indirectly by our example

“The family has to work, has to live, breathe, love and be present. Without the embrace of the family, human souls are desperate.” The challenge is to put these words into action.’