“But, you say, how can we draw youth to us? We call them eagerly, and no one comes.” So said the President General of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in a Circular Letter. It is an ironic problem for the Society to face, the challenge of recruiting more youth members to join an organization that was founded by 19 and 20 year-olds.
It is an inexorable reality of human life that we all grow older, even if we are Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The founders themselves remained Members for the rest of their lives, long after graduating from the Sorbonne. The photos we have are of white-haired men, not college students.
We always recognize and celebrate longtime Vincentians at our General Assemblies, as we should. Their example of dedication is inspiring. Lest we forget, though, the longest-serving among us, like the founders, began in their youth!
Ours is still – or should be – a Society for young Members. Indeed, our Rule calls on “Members of all ages” to “strive to preserve the spirit of youth”. [Rule, Part I, 3.5] Doing this does not mean trying to listen to the latest music, learn the latest slang, or pass ourselves off as young. After all, the first Conference, despite its youth, was quite out of step with its own times and fads, but in touch with something more radical, something more disruptive, something deeper, something greater, something…younger.
The young seek what we all seek, because all of us, young and old, have God’s word written on our hearts. As a young Frédéric Ozanam put it, the young have felt “the hunger for truth crying out” but have been left empty by “the barren philosophy of the modern Apostles” in which they “have not found food for [their] souls.”
“The religion of your forefathers appears before you today,” he continued. “do not turn away, for it is generous. It also, like you, is young. It does not grow old with the world. Ever renewing itself, it keeps pace with progress, and it alone can lead to perfection.” [Baunard, 20]
It is not enough, then, to “call them eagerly”, unless we also “welcome young Members into all Conferences.” [Rule, Part I, 3.7] Their youthful enthusiasm revitalizes the older Members, while the timeless experience of serving the poor deepens the spirituality of the young.
That Circular Letter was not written by the current President-General – although it could have been. It was written by Adolphe Baudon in 1851. It turns out that seeking young members is not only an ironic challenge for the Society – it is an old one.
How can I truly be more welcoming to young Members?
A New Century Dawns (especially Chapter 10: A Saint for the Campus)