ALTHOUGH the St Vincent de Paul Society is increasing in membership and is healthy, things could be better, according to its retiring chairman, Peter Willis.
Mr Willis, from Bedford, said at the packed annual meeting in Norwich Cathedral on Sunday that the SVP was becoming involved in new ventures such as social justice, work among the handicapped, advising people of their rights, housing, after-care and a scheme in Notting Hill, London, for helping unemployed young blacks.
The statistics in his report are impressive: about 12,000 to 13,000 members in England and Wales, and more than one million visits made to the poor by members last year. Membership is increasing, with about 2,000 youth members and 35 new conferences founded last year. Most of the work involves helping the poor in a parish, but the society has 86 "twinnage" schemes overseas, and has a disaster fund.
In addition to visiting in this country the society is involved with helping with the physically and mentally handicapped, the deaf, the blind, alcoholics and drug addicts among other groups.
The SVP has also recently produced a checklist which can be used by those visiting the elderly to make sure that all their needs are seen to. A follow-up booklet explaining how these problems can be dealt wiht is to be published shortly.
The conference was particularly impressed with the work of the conference of St George's College, Weybridge, which has some 120 members — the largest in any school in the country.
AlthOugh the young were given a warm welcome by the conference, a document produced by the Youth Committee, called the Ladywell Report, questions whether the society is prayer
ful enough, ecumenical enough, or really aware of the real needs of society today. The report, written by Andrew Spurrier, a journalist from Lancashire, says that the society should take a much more deliberate line in fostering the spiritual lives of its members. The report also criticises the organisation for not being sufficiently aware of the spiritual and material poverty of modern life, and asks whether the society members preserve "de luxe treatment for Catholics and often ignore their neighbours?" It also suggests that the society should be more ecumenical: "Young Catholics do not share the 'siege' outlook of many of the older generation and have no patience with an organisation which takes a sectarian approach."
The report says that the structure of the SVP makes it capable of renewal, but recommends a new voting structure to bring local representatives more in touch with national policy.
Although the Ladywell Report has been welcomed for discussion by the society, most of the two-day annual meeting at Norwich was taken up with discussion of the individual problems of the members in their day-to-day work.
The new national president of the SVP is Duncan Todd, a 48-year-old managing director of a Newcastle engineering works. He has a particular interest in working with the deaf.