St. Vincent de Paul Society has grown, matured
By C.Y. Lai, Melaka
Michael Thio, 66, has just started his six-year term as the 15th president general of the International Confederation of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP). Elected by a margin of 87 percent votes on May 28, 2010 at the General Plenary Assembly in Salamanca, Spain, the Singaporean is the first Asian and non-European to head the worldwide lay Catholic apostolic society since it was formed in 1833 in France. Thio took up office officially on Sept. 27, the feast day of Saint Vincent de Paul.
Thio has been involved in the SSVP since 1967, first in Singapore, then at the Asia and global levels.
He recently spoke with ucanews.com in Melaka, Malaysia, where he was attending a national SSVP event there.
ucanews.com: What does it means to be the first Asian president general of SSVP?
MICHAEL THIO: After 177 years since it’s founding, the global movement in 146 countries voted for the first non-European president general. It is unprecedented and it is a historical moment for the Society. In my opinion, it shows the Society has grown and matured over the years. While European countries make up 30 percent of the membership now, Africa and Asia/Oceania combined holds about 50 percent of the global membership. And while membership in terms of individual members and countries are growing in Africa and Asia/Oceania, in Europe individual membership is declining. There is a discerning paradigm shift in the growth and development of the Society outside Europe.
The demographic, political, economic, cultural and professional environment outside Europe has produced people capable of managing global establishments. The fact that a non-European has been elected shows that democracy and openness prevails in the Society, which is taking up the challenge to address the ever increasing needs of the poor and oppressed all over the world. It has become a truly Christian global Society of Catholic origin.
Today, we are in 147 countries spread throughout every continent. We operate under eight regions, each of which is headed up by an International Territorial Vice President (ITVP) who reports to the Council General International, the headquarters in Paris. The Society is today one of the most respected, well known, flourishing and inspiring apostolate of charity in the world.
What are your plans for SSVP as president general?
When I was elected last May, I shared with the World Assembly in Salamanca my goals as listed in my manifesto. Among these are enhancing members’ spiritual formation, forming and developing leaders to serve the poor and needy in the 21st century, continuing to expand the scope and quality of our services to the poor and needy.
Also focusing on youth and young adults and render them every opportunity for participation and involvement in the ministry, developing effective communication to promote better understanding and knowledge of the Society’s works and activities, collaborating with other Christian organizations in works of charity and justice, and maintaining a close and strong relationship with the Church hierarchy.
It is a goal of the manifesto to foster growth of the Society into new countries to serve more people in need with a view of bringing about systematic change to those we serve and assist, which means helping them to be independent and raise their human dignity.
How do you intend to go about spiritual formation and training of members?
Spiritual formation of members is absolutely fundamental and necessary to grow in our Vincentian spirituality and apostolate. We are a Catholic lay apostolate organization and Christ is the centre of all that we do. Christian charity is our love for Christ transformed into loving service given to others and this is one of the core values of our Vincentian spirituality.
Many National Councils have their formation and training programs. The onus is on them to have a formation team to look into formation and development programs for their members. If they need guidance and assistance they can seek it from Council General or from Vincentians in the more mature countries. Formation and development, both in spirituality and leadership, is a continuing process.
What kinds of communities should SSVP concentrate on?
There are many types of “new poor” in various countries and depending on their needs. They are unemployed but employable people, people suffering from addictions such as alcoholism, delinquent children, dysfunctional families, refugees and people displaced by natural or political disasters. The kind of service we provide also depends on the expertise, capabilities and experience of our members in a certain locality.
Many SSVP conferences lack youth members.
This is a phenomenon mainly in developed countries. The lifestyle, priorities and goals of young people are different from their fathers and forefathers. Not only in some of our Conferences but also in Churches where attendances of youth have declined considerably. However, in some developing and third-world countries, youth are still very active in conferences. For example, our Society has very active youth members in many South American countries as well as in some countries of our Africa and Asia and Oceania regions. We cannot generalize that inactive youth are prevalent in most countries.
A very positive effect of the World Youth Day (WYD), revived by the late Pope John Paul II, has sensitized many youths around the world and more youths are beginning to flock back to Church and its various apostolates. Many youth and young adults have joined SSVP conferences and some of them are done great work. We need to focus on youth and young adults and render them suitable programs and giving them every opportunity for participation in the growth and leadership. Usually, about three days prior to the actual WYD programs, the SSVP runs special programs for Vincentian Youth who gather from all over the world.