Almost 200 regional and state leaders of the St Vincent de Paul Society (Vinnies) attended a national congress in Adelaide last weekend – the first gathering of its kind in 60 years, reports The Southern Cross.
For the Society's national president Graham West, a former New South Wales politician with a background in community development, the time for Vinnies to come together to take stock of current realities and set the agenda for the future of the organisation has never been better.
After all, when the St Vincent de Paul Society held its last national congress in 1957, Australia had a population of under 10 million and Vatican II had not even been contemplated.
“It’s a completely different world, there have been enormous changes in society…the fact we haven’t done this for 60 years is an opportunity to put us back on track,” Mr West told The Southern Cross on the eve of the congress.
“We have been discussing the need to come together as a Society for the past five years, including what form that might take.
“We used to have thousands of people coming from all over the place – massive processions with many people travelling by train for days from the outback.
“We can’t necessarily do that now but it’s important to bring people together so we can discuss our shared future.
“The Society is facing many challenges; Mass participation is going down and that’s where we’ve traditionally drawn our members, so we need to think of new ways of engaging with all people.”
At 44 years of age, Mr West admits he has often been described as “young” since being elected national president two and a half years ago. But while he recognises the importance of attracting younger people to the organisation, he said he wanted “everybody” to feel they could be part of a 184-year-old social movement that has survived the test of time.
He also recognises that there are new forms of poverty and the Society has to make sure “we are not just giving a hand out, but a hand up”.
It's time...Vinnies looks to the future (The Southern Cross)