Let me start by emphasizing that service to others is a constituitive element of all faith formation, including adult faith formation (see the Six Tasks of Catechesis).
With that in mind, I met last evening with 2 extraordinary gentlemen (both named Bill) from the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Barnabas parish in Chicago where I am exploring the ins and outs of adult faith formation.
Both of these gentlemen are in their 70s and devote enormous amounts of time and energy to organizing and participating in service to others including the following:
- weekly site supervision at the South Suburban PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter)
- weekly dinner at the SW Chicago PADS
- weekly food pantry at St. Gall parish
- weekly wake up activities and lunches at South Suburban PADS
- monthly breakfast at SW Chicago PADS
- weekly visiting of residents at Evergreen Health Care
- weekly soup and sandwiches for the hungry in nearby Robbins
- a huge annual back-to-school event at St. Gall
In addition to these regular activities, members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society are “on call” when the parish receives requests from people who need a ride to the doctor, need assistance in paying a utility bill, and so on.
I was so appreciative to hear from these 2 men about the network of people (many of whom have been actively serving for decades) involved in providing this care for so many in need. They explained that most of the people who provide these services do not come to meetings…they just show up to do the work.
One of the challenges they face is inviting young people to get involved. They mentioned that a year or so ago, the parish had a ministry fair but “no one signed up for St. Vincent de Paul.” Perhaps that is because most young adults are not looking to “join a club” but are interested in occasional opportunities to be of service to others. I suggested that perhaps a more effective way to attract more young adults is to simply ask for help for a specific service opportunity: e.g. “We are in need of volunteers to serve breakfast this Saturday at the SW Chicago PADS shelter. Please call…” In other words, the SVD society can see itself not simply as a group of members who provide service to others but as the organizing entity for service opportunities for the whole parish. Even though many young adults who come forward to provide service may be “one-timers,” those one-time experiences could be very significant for their own faith formation. Likewise, some of these “one-timers” may eventually latch on to become the future leadership of the SVD Society.
In addition, these phenomenal service opportunities are often a “well-kept secret” in many parishes…not intentionally, but out of the humility that is characteristic of the SVD Society. I had to plow through the parish Web site to find the opportunities listed above. As we seek to involve more adults in faith formation, it is important to see these service opportunities as key entry points and to raise their profile. Parishes need to do more to publicize groups like the SVD Society and to make CONSTANT invitations to parishioners to volunteer to be of service to others. Ongoing invitations to volunteer for outreach ministries (not just “maintenance” ministries) should be a hallmark of any Catholic parish.
A great big THANK YOU to all of the humble and hard working people who serve others through St. Vincent de Paul Societies all over the world. The Society provides numerous opportunities for adults to grow in holiness by serving others – a key part of adult faith formation.