This is a sign of the times: Thousands of Catholic young adults now participate in service projects and even in a year-long volunteer corps. These volunteer opportunities are not only offered through Catholic schools, religious orders and agencies. Other denominations and secular institutions also have service projects in which Catholics serve along with others. Volunteerism is hardly new in our country, though service requirements in school, mission trips in college and post-grad volunteer corps are recent developments—at least in their current scope. In the old days young adults more or less sought out volunteer opportunities on their own, for mixed motives: to change society, to learn from a charismatic leader, or (in my case anyway) to meet women. Today’s young adults, their program leaders and the service agencies are all to be applauded.
Michael Laskey of Camden, writing in U.S. Catholic (11/14), wonders though if “the default approach [to young adult volunteering] is out of whack.” He is all for service but, he asks, how many young adults really form a relationship with those they serve? Like most North Americans, Laskey admits to a “preference for the quick fix.” Volunteering often becomes a one-way effort to get the job done, Laskey finds. Do young adult volunteers, he concludes, ever “confront any suffering or ask difficult questions about the world” or about themselves?
At one time Laskey’s own forays into volunteerism were premised on tackling “solutions to injustices.” He came to think that maybe it is better to “start with relationships.” His acquired approach, he says, seems more in harmony with Pope Francis’ themes of going to the peripheries to build “a culture of encounter.”
“Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world,” writes Pope Francis. “Often it is better simply to slow down, put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others.”
Francis intends to encourage people and so admits that some might feel “offended by my words.” Yet, he continues, the dominant culture likes “the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional.” Christian service, by contrast, should first be about encounter—not “simply an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of charity a la carte.” And second, it should “make an impact on society” by “working to eliminate structural causes of poverty.”
It is hard to create bridging relationships, says Paul Lichterman in Elusive Togetherness (Princeton University Press, 2005), his case study of nine volunteer and advocacy projects that explores the tension between lending-a-hand service and partnering. The less fortunate can seem inscrutable, Lichterman admits. So the best-intentioned volunteers often proceed with partial understanding, unconcerned with the larger map of the culture and civic world around the needy. The volunteers complete the task, yet have loose connections to the less fortunate and even to one another—not only in direct service projects but in policy campaigns, like for example those concerned with a living wage or with eliminating trafficking.
Young adult volunteering is a marvelous development. Its graduates are included in the powerful 2%. But their project leaders and the young adults might reflect on their experience with an eye toward the public arts of encounter: How will this experience carry over into my career and family life? Does this experience, perhaps in synergy with Catholic tradition, suggest any principles that can be used on my job or in my own culture? And did I develop an appropriate public friendship with my fellow volunteers and those we tried to serve?
Droel is editor of INITIATIVES, a newsletter about faith and work. Get INITIATIVES and Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis’ fuller thoughts on a culture of encounter, from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $10 pre-paid).