Building a strong future for Catholic social services

By Alice Cronin, for Catholic Social Services Victoria

A clear highlight of Friday morning’s sessions at the national Catholic social services conference, Serving Communities with Courage and Compassion, held in Melbourne from 26-28 February, was the panel of young leaders of Catholic organisations who gave a fresh perspective to the notion of a ‘way forward in mission’.

The panelists included Belinda Clarke, Founding Director of Social Impact Partners, CatholicCare Tasmania; Claire Victory – National President of St. Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia; and Josh Lourensz – Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria.

Each panelist provided an insight into their own beginnings in the world of Catholic social service. For Belinda, it was as a 17-year-old when she attended a Mercy Sisters retreat. For Claire, it was her first experience with St. Vincent de Paul Society as a ten-year-old, participating in home visits to older community members. Josh, through his beginnings as a youth worker with the Salvation Army, found a keen interest in the plight of asylum seekers and the homeless.

The refreshing insight offered by each allowed for an interesting discussion about the efforts of the Catholic social service sector and whether these are enabling people to reach their full potential. Belinda conceded that the sector is not doing as well as it could be, despite the resources available. She also claimed that the disadvantaged and marginalised are becoming even more so, which speaks to the need to think differently about the sector’s response.

Claire agreed that, while organisations such as St. Vincent de Paul Society are aiming to help people, the government and society at large continue to demonise those in need, working largely off assumptions. Josh added to this, agreeing that the depth of issues such as homelessness is masked and, therefore, not always addressed. It is clear that we collectively need to address the underlying structural causes of poverty and disadvantage.

Given the clear need for systemic change, the panelists were asked to describe their processes of prioritising needs. For Claire, it is consulting members of her organisation about the challenges they face and being guided by this feedback. Belinda described the effort to strike a balance between focusing where the most energy is in society and the areas where energy is not given.

While she conceded this can be difficult, given the broad scope of CatholicCare Tasmania, she explained that the best place to start is with an organisation’s greatest asset: their people. Josh described the unique nature of Catholic social services, in that they are not purely staff-run but also include volunteers and everyday members of the community. The clear theme in all three panelists’ approaches? The need to prioritise people as both the focus and source of change.

All three brought stories of the individuals and/or groups who have inspired them throughout their careers. For Belinda, it was a Sister who encouraged her to spend time in the local Woolworths supermarket in her area of work. Through this, she learnt that one must be a part of a community in order to make a difference in said community.

For Claire, it was the first person from St. Vincent de Paul Society to take her on a home visit, as well as the everyday members of the organisation. For Josh, it was a former manager who, despite his high-powered position, often took the time to unpack the dishwasher in the staff room.

As for identifying emerging leaders – much like themselves – in this sector? The responses from the panelists were simple: look for those eager for training, development and growth; recognise those that are open about their vulnerabilities and the areas in which they still have much to learn; look for those who put themselves among the action and, of course, look for the person unpacking the dishwasher.

Overall, this panel discussion provided a refreshing, hope-filled glimpse into the future of Catholic social services.

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