Speech to Meeting of Youth Representatives National Office, Canberra, Sunday 15th February, 2009 Syd Tutton
Last year the Australian Bishopsâ€™ Social Justice Statement had as its reflective centre the story of the rich young man. You all know this story. You know how the rich young man was seeking eternal life and asked Jesus what he needed to do to attain it. Jesus, of course, concluded his response to the rich young man by asking him to sell his possession, give the money to the poor and then come and follow him along with his other disciples. This is a hard story. The message appears uncompromising. One almost feels sorry for the young man as he went away feeling sad. 1
Too often this story is interpreted as solely being a call for divestment, for a casting away of the material things of this world. Indeed, it has formed the core of a number of scriptural texts that were traditionally used to explain and encourage the great movements of monasticism of the 3rd and 4th centuries in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and parts of modern day Turkey. I would like to put to you, however, that the other side of this story is all about investment. The “getting rid of” certainly matters but so does the “what we put into”. We can think of the ways this applies to us on a very personal level. There are things in our lives we need to let go of. At the same time there are things we are called to embrace and put our energies into. I am addressing these reflections to you because I believe that you are the real wealth of the St Vincent de Paul Society. Your passion for social justice, your compassion for our marginalised sisters and brothers, your prayerful sense of the sacredness of our mission; all of these things make you the heart of the Society.
But I have to pause and ask you a painful question: Do you feel like you are the heart of the Society? Or do you feel like you are, at best, on the fringes of the Society? The story of the rich young man is extremely relevant to the Society at this time. Iâ€™m going to be up-front with you. There are some of our structures and ways of doing things that I believe we are called to give up. We are called to leave these structures and habits behind inasmuch as they hinder our fidelity to the gospel of love and inclusion. There are ways of doing things, at every level of the society, from the local Conference to the National Council, that prevent real inclusion of young adults and real empowerment of your creativity and passion for justice. As with the story of the rich young man, however, it is never just a matter of what we give up. We must also consider what it is we want to embrace, what it is we want to really invest our energies in.
When I stood for the office of President of National Council early last year I was very honest about my conviction that we needed to invest in our young members and that we needed to change so that we could be a place of welcome for new young members as well as people of diverse backgrounds in the Australian community. There are a number of spaces in the Society where we are beginning to get this right. There are also, however, far too many spaces in the Society where we are getting this horribly wrong. We should not be afraid of the truth. But neither should we resign ourselves to the status quo. It is time for young adults to be not only included but actually prominent in the mainstream affairs and decision-making structures of the Society. I am doing my utmost to make this a reality at the level of National Council. It is my prayer that together we can make a reality at every level of the Society.
The launch of the Foundation for Social Innovation in October last year saw a call for project proposals especially from young adults in the Society. The idea, which needs to be better publicized within the Society, is that young adults are encouraged to propose projects that could be funded by the Foundation. In a world where there is a presumption that everything must be instantaneous there is something to be said for the speedy mobilization of resources in the interests of innovative projects with excellent social outcomes for disadvantaged people. At the same time, of course, we also need to plan for and invest in longer-term projects and programmes that are consistent with our mission of social justice and compassion. I urge this group to take the word to the streets on this call for proposals. This is an exciting opportunity for young adults to take initiatives and to direct and determine the outcomes within the St Vincent de Paul Society. I began this reflection with a reference to the story of the rich young man. I have shared a few thoughts about giving things up and taking new things on. 5
I would like to leave you with, what to me, is the real nub of this story and the real heart of the Vincentian vocation. I am speaking of three simple words: “Come, follow me.” This is the simple message of Jesus. This is the simple message of the St Vincent de Paul Society. In the marginalised and excluded; in the despised and degraded; in the “dangerous classes” as they were called in the time of Blessed Frederic and his young companions; this is where we seek and find our God. Through these people, Jesus says: “Come, follow me.” We, in turn, issue this invitation to those who share our hope for a more just and compassionate Australia: “Come with us. Join us.” Let us together work to ensure that there is a place in the Society for all who wish to join us on our journey. I make this earnest call on you as young adults to take a leading role in this opening up to newness.