Lay Volunteers: Partners in Mission
As we come closer to this year’s Mission Congress, I invite you to reflect on how being missionary disciples calls us to give of ourselves in service to others. I’ve had the privilege of serving as the Executive Director of Catholic Volunteer Network (CVN) for the last 19 years. In my role, I am also a member of the Catholic Mission Forum (CMF), which is the name for the collaborative effort in the United States by various mission agencies across the country. Convened several times a year since 2001 by the United States Catholic Mission Association (USCMA), the purpose of the CMF is “to engage in dialogue and promote collaboration among the various agencies for mission in the Church in the U.S.”
From its inception, the CMF decided, as an effective means of achieving its purpose, it should prepare and host a Mission Congress every five years. CVN is proud and grateful to be one of the sponsoring organizations and participants of the upcoming Mission Congress 2015, titled “Witnessing Mission: Called to be Missionary Disciples,” which will take place in Houston from October 1-4, 2015.
CVN is a membership organization of faith-based volunteer service programs, some of which you may have heard of, such as Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and probably some smaller programs with which you are not as familiar. Collectively last year, our 220 member programs placed more than 22,000 full-time volunteers in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and 114 other countries.
Since 1965, Catholic Volunteer Network has published our annual RESPONSE directory of lay volunteer opportunities. We help recruit volunteers for our members via our website with its searchable database, and through our recruiters who travel to more than 100 college campuses each year. We also provide training, educational resources, networking opportunities and advocacy for our members.
Full-time, faith-based service is a proven way to engage young people in the mission of the Church and a path that leads them to continue that engagement. In summer 2012, in anticipation of our 50th anniversary the following year, Catholic Volunteer Network (CVN) commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to conduct a survey of former volunteers (alumni) of CVN membership organizations. The results of the CARA study illustrated that the impact of the service experience affects volunteers’ faith journey long after their term is completed. We found that church attendance of our volunteer alumni is much higher than that of the general U.S. population or of the average U.S. Catholic (46% attend Mass at least once per week, compared with 27% of the general population and 25% of Catholics). The survey also suggested that service experience helps volunteers better discern their life’s vocation.
To us at CVN, these results demonstrate the transformative effect that a term of faith-based volunteer service can have on the individuals who serve. Not only are these volunteers helping to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized, but they are also growing in their own faith, most often living in community while they volunteer and striving to live a simple lifestyle. Former volunteers recognize their baptismal call to holiness and continue to live out the tenets of the programs with which they served.
Furthermore, besides engaging young people in missionary discipleship, volunteer programs help to foster collaborations between sponsoring religious communities and young people, helping these communities to find new ways to express their charisms. In our own annual membership survey released last November, 75 percent of our volunteers were 25 years of age or younger. What can take place when these young people live in a community sponsored by a religious congregation is a sharing of the congregational charism with both women and men who have a desire to live out that unique call in this day and time and in many varied ways, acting together as powerful agents of community transformation. A small number of volunteer alumni will likely enter religious life and some of those may make a lifelong commitment.
The upcoming Mission Congress is an opportunity for our CVN member programs to interact with other mission-sending organizations and mission-minded individuals and to share their unique insights on the role of service in missionary discipleship. This year’s Mission Congress schedule aims to celebrate the mission identity of our U.S. Church and share a renewed sense of the great adventure Jesus has in store for us as he invites us to deepen our sense of missionary discipleship. We look forward to meeting you there!