The title of this brief reflection may be shocking, especially since so many of our current conferences are composed of “middle age” or “aged” members. As we all know, at the time of our foundation, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul was a place for growth — personal and community — for young people, who concretized their Christian commitment in direct service on behalf of those who were in need.
In 1858, when the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul celebrated its 25th anniversary, it was established in many countries, bringing together tens of thousands of members. The mustard seed, which was planted on April 23, 1833, had grown and had become a tree, still young, but leafy. Even then the members were worried about their age: they begin to feel the passage of the time in a large number of the members of that Society, which began as a small charity conference of seven young people around 20 years old. Even before this date, in 1847, Frederic Ozanam addressed the General Assembly of the Society with these words: “If young people who join us are able to find friends and brothers in our midst, then it is essential for the Society to recruit its members among the young. Fourteen years ago the Society came into existence but we should not be aging as a Society as our founders grow older … charity can never become a routine, ordinary practice.”
This is reflected in the following text, which was published in the General Bulletin of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in the year 1858:
Our Society was founded by young people for young people. The primary objective of those who initiated the Society was to procure, for themselves and their peers, a protection against their own weakness during their youth. This is a fundamental idea for all our conferences.
But, is it not true that, on many occasions, we involuntarily forget about this initial objective? If we are to believe the complaints of some conferences, we are tempted to think that this is so. In effect: we are told that, in many areas — even in places where there are students — little thought is given to cultivating and attracting young people and, therefore, our fundamental perspective is neglected.
If this is so, then it is our obligation to insist on this to the other members of our conference. The conferences are not only beneficial for young people (a place of refuge for these people of faith), but also young people are most beneficial for our conferences. Indeed, as young people share their vitality, life, and enthusiasm, they prevent the individual conferences from becoming “cold” and/or from falling into the trap of business as usual.
We hear it said: “We cannot attract young people.” Maybe, in some cases, that is true, but is it always the case? Are their not conferences where young people come but because of their age they are mistrusted and are told that they lack experience? If this is so, it should not be seem strange that these same young people, welcomed so coldly, become upset and leave the conference The opposite would be something surprising, because it would infer an extraordinary ardor on their part.
We exhort the conferences that complain that they do not have young people in their midst, to examine their own behavior … perhaps some change in attitude and some modification in procedures needs to be made. Are your meetings too long? Do the members become overly concerned with minor details and speak at length about matters that should be resolved in a minute? When young people come into our midst for the first time, do we care about them, welcome them, and, after having tested their zeal, are they entrusted with some responsibility? These are several points on which the conferences should make an examination of conscience. Such an examination, if done seriously, will be fruitful.
Let us conclude this matter with a reflection: many times young people are mistrusted and never considered for certain positions in our conferences. This is especially true when considering individuals for the position of president. Certainly, to lead a conference, individuals must show that they are mature, confident and have some experience. When these qualities are found in young people, we should not be afraid to elect them to positions of leadership simply because they are still young. On the contrary: it often happens that conferences chaired by young people are most prosperous, because they attract other young people. Such leaders possess a certain boldness (and are attentive to the prudence of the older members) and that combination of boldness and prudence gives life to our conferences
(From Bulletin Général de la Société de Saint Vincent de Paul, Paris, 1858).
The ideas that were cited in the above text were further developed by Frederic Ozanam prior to the 1847 General Assembly: Youth are needed because of their boldness and audacity, even their imprudence. They provide us with new ideas and a new way of doing things that we had never imagined.”
We all agree that our Vincentian Family, our Society, our conferences and groups, should be welcoming places where young people can find friends, can find brothers and sisters. In our society today it is imperative that adolescents and young people find in us a place where they can fully develop themselves as human persons and as Christians. In this sense, the reality we live does not seem very different from that described in the previous text that was written some 160 years ago … Let us think for a moment about our local reality: what steps are we taking to attract more young people?
People get old, and we need to be concerned about passing on the torch to others. Within the Vincentian Family, this is a real problem in many parts of the world, and in particular, among the Vincentians of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. To worry is not to lament, but, rather, to feel the urgency to communicate our enthusiasm to others whom we encounter. In this regard, the example of the first members of the Society is clear. They attracted new members by word of mouth and personal invitation; they attracted new faces from among their family and the places where they were studying … No one says this is easy and that is not why we are going to stop trying.
And what could we do? It is the same question, sure, that the members asked themselves in 1858. The above cited text invites us to make our conferences a welcoming places where young people feel comfortable, valued and encouraged and where, with renewed hope, we can all live the vocation to which we have been called.
How about a “day of open doors,” that is, a time when we invite young men and women to see, up close, the reality of a conference? How about collaborating with the educational centers and institutions of some Vincentian branch, asking them for the opportunity to explain the activity of our Society to the young people. How about encouraging young members to ask their friends and family to join the Society? How wonderful it would to see young people coming over the world, to join us in Salamanca in 2019 in order to share the joy of being brothers and sisters who are engaged in a common project!
Frederic said that youth are helpful and indispensable, “because of their audacity and even their imprudence”. We should not be afraid when young people present us with new, bold ideas … even imprudent ideas (from the perspective of older members). Often young people offer us new ways of thinking and acting … ways that because of our age, we would never imagine. Let us, then, encourage our young people to be protagonists and let us accompanying them and not impede their initiatives!
It is also necessary that adults arise among the Vincentians, individuals who following the example of Emmanuel Bailly, are willing to accompany and encourage young people. In one of his letters Frederic thanked Emmanuel Bailly for his work and stated:
You have accustomed us to look upon you as the rallying point, the adviser and friend of young Christians. Your past goodness has given us the right to count on your future goodness. Those you have done for me have encouraged me to hope for the same for my friends (Letter to Emmanuel Bailly, November 3, 1834).
How beautiful it would be to hear similar words from young Vincentians who are excited to follow the example of the founders!