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How did the early Christians live ?
One of the ‘aims and goals’ of the Passionist Family Group Movement is “to live and love like the early Christians”. In the earliest expressions of this aim there was a bracketed addition “see how they love one another”. This refers to Jesus command ‘love one another as I have loved you (John 15:12)
The early Christian communities took on many different characteristics, because there were many communities. However when we think of the ‘the early Christians’ we think of the early Jerusalem community, comprised essentially of Jewish Christians but including Gentile converts to Judaism, and therefore to ‘the Way’ as the Jesus Movement was originally known.
Our clearest descriptions of this early community come from the Acts of the Apostles. During the years from which this writing comes Jerusalem experienced extreme famine and hardship. Acts (Chapters 2 &4) includes phrases such as:
- ‘the faithful lived together and owned everything in common’
- ‘they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed’
- ‘none of their members was ever in want, as those who owned houses or land would sell them and bring the money from them to the apostles so it could be distributed to any members who might be in need.
- They shared their food gladly and generously
This emphasis on practical care of one another is very strong. There is another emphasis too which highlights their common faith.
- ‘They remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers’.
- ‘They went to the temple daily, but met in their houses for the breaking of bread’.
- ‘They praised God and were looked up to by everyone’.
- ‘Day by day the Lord added to their number’.
- ‘The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul’.
- ‘The apostles were given great respect; they continually testified to the resurrection with great power’.
The theological unity of the early Church outside Jerusalem soon diversified with the inclusion of many Gentiles, and differing attitudes to how the (Jewish) Law should be applied. It took some time for the new Movement to separate from Judaism. Initially, as Acts records, the believers (in Jerusalem) still continued to worship in the (Jewish) Temple. Complaints about unequal distribution of food were brought to the apostles, (Acts 6:1) highlighting the human reality of the community. This issue led to deacons (servants) being nominated by the community and appointed by the apostles, to ensure that the distribution of funds continued within the Jerusalem community.
This practical care for one another and common faith marked by ‘love for one another’ has always been regarded as the signature of an ‘ideal Christian community. It was with this in mind that it was included as one of the aims and goals of the Passionist Family Groups.
In this twenty-first century which is an era of rapid change, loss of extended family, and declining interest in traditional faith practices, the PFGM is at risk of ageing and declining. In order to respond to this crisis, it is vital that we revisit the aims of the Movement and ensure that they remain relevant to our times. It is also necessary to speak more boldly about the call to leadership and mission and the responsibility Christians have to respond to this call from God.
It is increasingly common to hear of individual Family Groups struggling to find ‘new’ coordinators or leaders. This is also true at the parish level. In some cases, the Movement has closed down or an individual group has folded because no one has been willing to take on the leadership role of parish or group coordinator. How does the gospel challenge us to respond to these situations?.
Firstly, we need to recognize that the coordinating roles are ministries in the community. This has been highlighted by the commissioning that occurs in many parishes. People are called to ministry. They do not volunteer, they respond to a call!
If people are to be called or invited, someone must do the inviting. This call should be seen first, as a faith call, coming from God. Who does the calling on God’s behalf ? This has to be the responsibility of the parish pastor who may often delegate this to the parish coordinators. Some discernment is obligatory. What does the role entail ? How long is it for ? Who has the gifts to carry out this ministry?
In order to make this role less intimidating and to encourage more active group participation, the Directors, after very wide consultation, changed the title of the role from ‘group leader ‘ to ‘group coordinator’. They also recommended two year renewable terms. A similar term was recommended for parish coordinators. Many have suggested that when a Family Group retains the name of a particular couple it can seem to belong to the couple, more than the rest of the (family) group. Care needs to be given and dialogue taken in choosing appropriate names for a group, but anything that helps the members take more ownership of their Passionist Family Group is to be encouraged.
Unless we are attentive to the faith dimension of coordinating roles, it is easy to see them become purely functional, rather than ministerial. We have seen this happen too often happen with the priestly role. To shepherd the people in a Family Group is a wonderful opportunity to respond to Jesus’ invitation to love and care for others.
At regional and parish level, we need to re-educate people about the role of group and parish coordinator. We do not need group ‘managers’ who simple organize functions, nor do we need parish ‘managers’ who call group coordinators together for meetings, put notices on church boards and little else. This is a Movement about people and people need to be loved and nurtured.
Too many people have ‘fallen away’ through neglect or lack of pastoring. When this happens, surely the goal of ‘living like the early Christians’ falls way short of the mark. Every time a family drops out or a group folds up, we should examine whether we are living up to our aims. We can do something about this trend, if we take note of how Jesus called people to ministry. He did the calling, and people responded or like the rich young man (Mk 10:17-22) failed to respond.
We do not simply call for volunteers. We discern the need, we consider who might be suitable and we invite or ‘call’ them to this ministry. Certainly, some will ‘walk away sad’ because they have other priorities or commitments. This may happen less, if the call to them is made from a faith and mission perspective. In other words, the invitation is very clearly to ministry, not to management. It is to care for people, to help the people love one another more and support one another better. It is not to organize monthly outings. It is to build a family.
The longer we continue to allow Family Group members to think that Family Group life is simply a way to meet new parishioners and get together once a month for activities, without any commitment to grow in love and fellowship or to share faith, the more difficult it will be to call people into a pastoring role in the group. Family Groups need to be continually reminded of the aims and goals of the Movement and an annual review can be part of the process for doing this.
It might be a helpful exercise to see how in 2002-2003 we could rewrite the aims and goals to express more clearly what we are seeking. Perhaps among these aims there needs to be something which makes the call to leadership (helping the members to continue to meet, to care for and support one another and to see this as living their faith) more clear. Perhaps each parish could be invited to undertake this exercise before Easter 2003. Our purpose would not be to change our aims and goals, but to see if they might be more clearly expressed for our times.
Because of the ageing and decline in parishioners, many are finding fewer people willing to take on coordinating roles. If no one in a group or in a parish is willing to respond to the invitation to help the members in their faith journey, (the purpose of the PFGM) surely questions would have to be asked about how they see Family Group life. “Take up your cross’ Jesus says, and ‘come after me’.
Where people do not respond, there will be death. The community (first the individual Family Group, and then the parish Movement) will die. This has happened in church communities throughout history. It will continue happening. Sometimes it can be prevented, not just by acts of generosity, and certainly not by arm twisting, but by people making a faith response to a call to ministry.
“They will not believe in Him unless they have heard of him, and they will not hear of him unless they get a preacher, and they will never have a preacher unless one is sent” (Romans 10: 14-15)
Brian Traynor CP