The Passionist Family Group Movement May Have the Answer

In April 2011 the Office of National Statistics will ask the UK population to rate their own well-being in the first official Happiness Index.  David Cameron’s £2 million plan to measure the nation’s happiness makes good an election pledge which promised a significant coalition investment in the quality of life as well as in economic growth.  Speaking at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference last year the Prime Minister said, “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWP – general well being.”

If prosperity alone cannot deliver contentment what is the secret to true happiness?  According to a recent study by the American Sociological Institute two key factors are attendance at religious services and having close friends in the congregation.  Chaeyoon Lim, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and lead author of the study, found that the social aspects of religion and a shared religious connection were key factors in determining happiness.  Even irregular church attendance increased the sense of well being, as long as there was a circle of friendships within the community and a strong shared religious identity.

This will come as no surprise to Father Peter McGrath, the inspirational Australian founder of the Passionist Family Group Movement (PFGM).  No stranger to public acclaim, Father Peter was awarded the Order of Australia medal in January’s Australia Day awards, in recognition of his outstanding service to the community.  Established in 1973, the PFGM seeks to build a genuinely supportive, global Christian community through the development of ‘extended family groups’. In the age of the nuclear family, loneliness is prevalent and there is a genuine need for mutual comfort and support, particularly when people’s own extended families live far away from them.  The success of the movement, over the past forty years, has been phenomenal. There are now over 100,000 PFGM members in Australia, New Zealand and North America.  It is, as Pope John Paul II described it, “the great family made up of Christian families… each one putting at the service of others its own experience of life, as well as the gifts of faith and grace.” (Familiaris Consortio)

Coordinated by volunteer Parish Coordinators and individual Group Leaders, each Family Group usually meets once a month, either in a member’s home or in a public space.  There are no rules and no set agendas – the group decides what it wants to do.  The event might be a, ‘bring a plate supper’ or a barbecue or just cricket in the park.  The emphasis is on bringing people together, and in Father Peter’s words, “slowing time down…and helping us become brothers and sisters again.” The PFGM differs from a social group or a football club because at its heart, lies a desire, not to score goals or raise money, but to love each other as our Father in Heaven intended us to do.

The PFGM fosters an atmosphere of acceptance.  Everyone is welcome irrespective of their age or personal circumstances.  The PFGM has a free flowing universality which can be shaped to fit the particular needs of any culture or community.  For this reason it is now finding a voice in Scotland, Ireland and, most recently, England.

In 2007 Father Peter was invited by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to introduce the PFGM to two ‘pilot’ parishes in England: St Bernadette’s (more latterly St Michael’s and St Bernadette’s) in Whitefield, Manchester and Our Lady of Victories, in Kensington, London.

The first pilot was launched at St Bernadette’s in October 2007.  Father Peter flew in from Australia and, at the invitation of Parish Priest Father Christopher Lough, spoke during each of the weekend masses. Over 120 people signed up that weekend and three years later, the PFGM is still going from strength to strength.  There are now three large Family Groups in the parish, with a membership of about 140 people.  The groups have created their own unique identities and, in two cases, their own names. One group is called ‘Rafiki’ which means ‘friend’ in Swahili and the other is called Raddix – ‘Roots’.

The PFGM in St Michael’s and St Bernadette’s has a rich mix of members who meet monthly for picnics, walks, weekends away, ‘shared plate’ suppers and games in the park. Notable recent events include a House Mass celebrated by Fr Christopher Lough, and a ‘sing along’ with the residents of a local care home.  One of the PFGM’s proudest achievements is the creation of a parish Family Youth Group – set up for local teenagers to reflect their own age and interests. The 25 members regularly go bowling or to the cinema or split into smaller groups so that the boys can play snooker while the girls enjoy an occasional ‘nails and pampering’ night.  The Family Youth Group also actively contributes to parish life, which led them to successfully organise and host the parish Christingle Service during Advent last year.

Parish Coordinators Christine and Vincent Joyce have noticed that “strong friendships have been formed and people now talk about a sense of belonging that they did not feel previously.” A family, originally from Ireland, who joined the PFGM three years ago, said that being part of a Family Group has made them feel less like outsiders in what is a very tight-knit community – something that regular attendance at Mass alone hadn’t achieved.  The PFGM rallies round in times of need, and offers practical support and prayers when a Family Group member is ill.  The Rafiki group supported Fiona and her family through a difficult pregnancy, and when her daughter Niamh was born the whole group attended the baptism at St Bernadette’s church.  Fiona said, “I can’t praise the idea of Family Groups enough and would encourage anyone who has the chance to start their own group to do so.  It’s a lot of reward for very little effort.

The second pilot, at Our Lady of Victories (OLOV) parish, Kensington has also been a resounding success.  With the support of parish priests Mgr Jim Curry and Fr Freddie Jackson the PFGM has enjoyed full access to the church hall and the parish’s administrative facilities, which has helped to expand group membership.  Notable PFGM events in Kensington have included – family bingo, a strawberry and cream fair, a  sponsored walk, senior citizen tea parties, Lenten film shows and a family fun auction.  According to Coordinator Glenda Clarke, the PFGM’s principal achievement has been the enriched experience of parish life – “socialization with fellow church parishioners from all walks of life” has encouraged people to speak to others within the congregation that they might never have engaged with before.

OLOV Parishioners Elisabet and Thomas Neinaber were also inspired by Father Peter McGrath’s description of early Christian communities as extended families and wanted their own children “to experience the same community values and to learn to share with others.” They spoke to fellow parents and realised that they were not alone. With the help of the PFGM Coordinators, Elisabet and Thomas set up an OLOV Family Group for families with children. The members of this group have since discovered that they not only share their vocation to parenthood, faith and values but also their circumstances, as most of the group are either foreign nationals or married to foreign nationals, and as such do not have their extended family in the UK.  The group meets every couple of months and enjoys a range of craft and outdoor activities which have included Easter egg hunts in the communal garden, preparing parish food boxes on the Feast of St Nicholas and creating personalised nativity scenes during Advent.

There appears to be a genuine consensus between PFGM members that loving and supporting each other gives families a real sense of belonging, or as Father Peter McGrath puts it, “creating a sense of community in the parish and a sense of parish in the community.”  Perhaps in the process they have uncovered the secret to true happiness?

Hannah Moruzzi
Marriage & Family Life Communications Officer
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales