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A faith that does justice

30 November, 1999

Seosamh MacReamon tells of his experience with the Society of St Vincent de Paul as a student in Trinity College and with the organisation “Slí Eile” as team coordinator for the group’s retreat programmes. Through these activities he helped hand on the faith and its values to another generation. Ireland today is quite a different […]

Seosamh MacReamon tells of his experience with the Society of St Vincent de Paul as a student in Trinity College and with the organisation “Slí Eile” as team coordinator for the group’s retreat programmes. Through these activities he helped hand on the faith and its values to another generation.

Ireland today is quite a different country from that of even twenty years ago. Terms like ‘the Celtic Tiger’ and the ‘knowledge economy’ are frequently used in describing our country. Many images are painted that suggest we live in a secular, individualistic, capitalist society, and usually these images are not seen in a positive light.

Those growing up in this period, the young adults of today, are often criticized as having no interest in faith or community values. In my experience, however, young adults are more than interested in these important aspects of life. Often, they adopt very active roles in fostering these elements in their own lives and in the lives of those around them.

My introduction to Catholicism was through my family – through the strong faith of my parents. However, it was in secondary school at Belvedere College where it became an integral part of my life. In a Jesuit school, the teachers – both Jesuit and lay – adopted a personal approach to education, including religious education.

In keeping with the ethos and philosophy of the school, I was encouraged to develop my faith fully, and to deepen its meaning in my life. As students we had ample opportunities to discuss and debate different aspects of religious beliefs, and to reflect on and explore our personal spirituality.

Through these experiences, I learned that a faith that was just lip service was unsatisfying – it left me feeling empty. In particular, gospel passages such as the vision of the Final Judgement (Mt.25:31-46) where the Son of Man says to those on his right, ‘As long as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me’, challenged me to do more.

It was this realization, combined with the many volunteering opportunities at school, that caused me to get involved in social justice projects. In particular, my three years’ membership of Belvedere’s St. Vincent de Paul Society made a great impression on me. I learned how spending an hour chatting with an old man living alone could mean so much more than the fuel vouchers we gave him. Likewise, the willingness to collect money for a few hours on the street seemed more significant than the actual amount raised.

After leaving Belvedere, I wanted to retain faith and social justice as important parts of my life. However, the transitional period from school to college can often be difficult for young people as they are exposed to new challenges and points of view. It was no different for me.

On entering Trinity College, like all first years subjected to the  barrage of student societies in Freshers’ Week, I signed up to about fifteen different societies. I did little bits and pieces with some of them, but the only one with which I really stayed involved was the St. Vincent de Paul Society – the ‘V-de-P’ as it is affectionately known. Perhaps this was because involvement in it seemed like a natural crossover from school, or perhaps I identified with the type of people I met in this society. For whatever reason, the V-de-P became a huge part of my life during my days in Trinity.

It was obvious from my experience in the St. Vincent de Paul Society that, despite the pressures of academia, and a rapidly changing society, students were not inhibited from getting involved in social justice activities. So many of my peers had such an awareness of injustice in our world both at home and abroad, and so many were willing to do something, big or small.

Whilst not all were inspired by their faith, many certainly were, and they often saw such work as a practical way of expressing their Christian values. For them it was important that reflection and prayer were accompanied by action.

During my time in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, membership increased six-fold, becoming one of the largest student societies on campus. I was fortunate enough to get involved in the running of the society, serving first as Vice-President, and then President. While the work of the society and its expansion received much recognition through various accolades, we got so much more satisfaction and fulfilment from the hands-on work we did.

In particular, as a response to the growing interest in our work from the student population, we increased fourfold the number of activities of the Society. We offered opportunities for students to work with different groups, including kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, people with learning disabilities, the elderly, refugees, and prisoners. While often involving a lot of hard work, it was great to be able to offer these activities to students, as so many wanted such opportunities to be involved.

One such project was the homework club in the Vincentian Refugee Centre in Phibsborough. There, Trinity V-de-P members helped unaccompanied refugee children with homework and study. It was wonderful to see so many young people from all over the world get together. It was amazing to think that so many of these students had come from situations and overcome difficulties, that were almost incomprehensible to us.

I spent most of my time teaching physics (my main subject in college) to a young Somali teenager. He was always smiling, even when my teaching skills weren’t up to scratch. His outlook on life really made a mark on me and reminded me of how much I have to be grateful for.

While a member of the V-de-P committee, I got a chance to learn a lot more about the founder of the Society, Blessed Frederic Ozanam. As I have gently reminded some older members of the Society once or twice, Frederic was just a student in Paris, aged twenty, when he founded the Society in 1833.

He had a lovely intellect and wit that was allied to a sensitive and loving heart. He saw the work of the Society as being much more than just charity. He believed that `Christianity is not about ideas but about deeds inspired by love’. It was a source of inspiration that someone so young could be so adept in discussing his faith, and so active in living it out in everyday life.

After college, I was lucky to be given the opportunity of combining my faith and my interest in social justice in a full-time job. I worked for a year as coordinator of part-time volunteering in a vibrant Jesuit young adult organization, Slí Eile.

My main role entailed creating and managing volunteering opportunities for young adults in Dublin. While this meant providing support to the volunteers in the work that they did, it also encompassed offering them opportunities to reflect on their work. This often helped to make obvious the link between faith, a faith that does justice, and the volunteer work.

I was also involved in some of the faith ministry work of Slí Eile. In particular, I helped the team coordinate the Slí Eile ‘Easter Experience’ in Clongowes Wood College. It proved to be a special occasion, due mainly to the fact that the young adults had such an active role in each aspect of the retreat. It was a powerful way to mark the most significant event in our Church calendar, and one of many engaging opportunities that Slí Eile offers to young adults in handing on the faith.

Many of today’s young adults may not attend Church services as frequently as other generations. However, I believe that they are searching for more meaning in their lives and some of them find it through faith. Those who do, want their faith to be real to them, and active in their lives.

Hence, young people are attracted to groups such as Slí Eile, that offer them greater participation in Church services and spiritual activities. They are also attracted to volunteering, as social justice issues are important to them, and allow them to put their faith into practice. Through these activities the faith has been handed down to the new generations. For me, and indeed for many young adults, the message of the gospel hasn’t changed; it is just visible in new ways. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (June 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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