What are Unaffiliated Lay Vincentians? Considering the declining membership in many branches of the Vincentian Family in the United States, how will the Vincentian mission continue in the twenty-first century? In 2005, Rev. Edward R. Udovic, C.M., Senior Executive for University Mission at DePaul University, argued that “by 2023 the Vincentians may well have no physical presence, canonical sponsorship role, or governance role at DePaul University.” His conclusion is based on careful observation of the historical membership trends in the Congregation of the Mission in the United States, going all the way back to their arrival in 1816. It is a trend line that steadily increased over decades until it reached a peak in 1965, and which has been on a steady decline ever since. The membership trends that Fr. Udovic described in 2005 not only pose a challenge to DePaul University, they will also continue to impact virtually every apostolate sponsored by the Vincentian Family in the United States. Despite noted trends of declining membership and a corresponding narrative of decline, there are also powerful signs of growth and rebirth, signs that should not be overlooked. The unaffiliated lay Vincentian experience may well be one of those signs of our times, pointing toward seeds of growth and renewal.
Currently, there is no adequate term to refer to a new generation of people inspired by the Vincentian mission in the United States; therefore, the term “unaffiliated lay Vincentian” (ULV) describes young adults ages 18 to 35 who have had a formative experience with the Vincentian mission either as a student at a Vincentian University, as a volunteer in a post-graduate Vincentian volunteer program, or both. They are unaffiliated because they do not currently have a formal relationship with the Vincentian Family as members of the Congregation of the Mission, Daughters of Charity, or Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They are Vincentian because they have been formed in and continue to self-identify with the Vincentian mission in profound ways. It is not an exaggeration to argue that Vincentian universities and post-graduate volunteer programs function as a kind of new Vincentian novitiate for Millennials, a period of initial exposure and formation that helps young adults identify a path of life-long commitment to the Vincentian mission.
Even though many young adults have had a formative experience in this new novitiate, by and large they leave the experience without a community of like-minded and like-hearted people to sustain them, no discernable structure for life-long formation, no rituals to celebrate ongoing commitment, no clear prospects to work professionally in the many apostolates of the Vincentian Family, and no structure of formal membership or ongoing participation in the broader Vincentian Family. They are, in a word, unaffiliated.
DePaul University’s Office of Mission and Values (OMV) commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to conduct a survey of unaffiliated lay Vincentians (ULVs). In addition to collecting basic demographic information, the study sought to understand the degree to which ULV’s consider themselves to be spiritual and religious, how the Vincentian mission currently influences their lives, and how they would like to engage with the Vincentian Family in the future. To read the survey findings, please see Scott Kelley and Jessica Werner, “The Future of the Vincentian Charism in the United States: Challenges, Trends, and Opportunities” in the Vincentian Heritage Journal Vol. 32 Iss. 2 (2015). Available at: http://works.bepress.com/scott_kelley/23/
By Scott Kelley, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice President for Vincentian Scholarship,
Office of Mission and Values,
Former Daughters of Charity and Vincentian priests and brothers shouldn’t be forgotten here. We still share the Vincentian formation and many of us, if not most of us, are still living that spirit. Outreach by the Vincentian community is important and welcome.
As a leader in the Vincentian Family, I enjoyed reading Scott Kelly’s and Jessica Werner’s article and the discussion on ULVs at a recent VIN FAM Leaders meeting. As one of the three original foundations, the Ladies of Charity believe that the presence of ULVs present opportunities and challenges to the existing “institutional expressions of the Vincentian Mission.” The Confraternities of Charity were founded by St. Vincent in August of 1617. (Eight years prior to the founding of the Congregation of the Mission, 16 years prior to the foundation of the Daughters of Charity and 216 years prior the “new branch of lay men who first called themselves the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1833.”) The “rule” of the Confraternities required a simple commitment to spiritual practices and service to God by serving persons who are poor and frail with humility, simplicity and charity.
The Confraternities of Charity were formed by St. Vincent with lay women in leadership roles and played an important part in the founding and proliferation of St. Vincent’s varied ministries. The International Associations of Charities (AIC) or the Ladies of Charity of the United States of America as we are called today is a direct descendent of what Fr. Etienne affectionately called for the first time “Dames de la Charité” when he promoted their revival with the two other foundations of St. Vincent after the French Revolution.
The report stated that it is “striking to note that seventy-eight percent of respondents (ULV) were female” and that “a significantly higher proportion of Vincentian volunteers are women (78%) when compared to national averages for volunteer organizations (58%)”.
St. Vincent would not have been surprised at the “striking” number of women in the ULV survey. His genius affirmed not only the role of women in the Church but also appreciation of their excellent leadership skills as well as their giftedness in caring for persons in need. It is very hard for young Vincentian women to find their roots in the Vincentian story when the role of their ancestors and the sisterhood who contributed greatly to the “family” is left invisible as it is in this short overview of this article. We are all, Ladies, Priests and Daughters of the Mission, along with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the various branches committed to transitioning the Mission into the next century and seek the grace these young leaders will communicate.
ULV women, we welcome you to shape the Vincentian mission for the future with the women who trace their roots to St Vincent as “woman working together against all forms of poverty.” We welcome your Vincentian “love, inventive unto infinity” as we work collaboratively with the Vincentian Family to alleviate poverty and its causes.
Right on target MaryAnn! I hope that this discussion will continue and light a fire.