Volunteering is not only "doing": It is first of all a way of being, which begins in the heart, from a grateful way of viewing of life, and it encourages us to "give back" and share the gifts we have received with our neighbor (Benedict XVI).
While catching up on the news from my beloved hometown of Quincy, Illinois, I read two news stories that illustrate in concrete ways a central theme of the pontificate of His Holiness Pope Francis. Both stories highlight a declining involvement of volunteers which many organizations have experienced increasingly over the past several years (the Church is not alone in this, though she is certainly experiencing it, as well).
The first news story concerns one of the Gem City's architectural treasures, the Villa Kathrine, which finds itself in need of volunteers:
The Friends have operated the tourist information center with volunteer hosts since 1987. Duties include greeting visitors, answering questions, sharing information about the area, collecting admissions for tours and handling souvenir sales."It would help if we could recruit some volunteers as we go into spring and the volume of visitors increases," Brown said.
The second news story concerns the Special Olympics, which also finds itself now with a shortage of volunteers:
"We are at a point where the community needs to get behind us or ... (Special Olympics) might just fade away," Davis said.
Davis said a limited budget is always a problem and more sponsorship funding is a must. That, coupled with a growing shortage of volunteers, is casting a cloud over the long-term future of Special Olympics in West-Central Illinois.
"Special Olympics opens all sorts of horizons for these athletes, but not only is the budget limited, many of the volunteers are reaching the age when they will soon be needing to step away," Davis said.
If we are not looking out and reaching out toward others, that likely means that we have turned inward.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis writes:
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ (2).
The Holy Father has repeatedly called us to go forth, to go out to the peripheries. While the Villa Kathrine and the Special Olympics are not, strictly speaking, Christian organizations, they are still part of the mission fields and so we should be there to bring the love of Jesus to those with particular challenges and even to those touring the beauty of a city on a bluff.
But if Pope Francis has continually called us to go out, why have so many apparently stayed in?
When asked why they do not volunteer to help with one organization or another, there are two excuses are typically given (these are the two I always heard in the schools and parishes in which I worked).
The first is simply because "I don't have time." This is possible, but given that the average American watches five (yes, 5) hours of television each day, very unlikely.
The second excuse - that "no one asked me" - is not really any better. Don't wait for someone to personally invite you! What makes you so important that you need a personal invitation? How does someone working in an organization seeking volunteers know that you have an interest? Did you mention you wanted to be asked to help?
When you see an organization - whether within the Church or without - in need of volunteers, ask yourself, "Can I be of assistance here?" If the answer is, 'Yes,' then ask Jesus, "What shall I do" (cf. Acts 22:10)?
When I first announced I had been appointed Pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Virden and of St. Patrick Parish in Girard, I said to my high school students:
Five or ten years from now, if you think of me I hope it will be because you have realized the beauty and the importance of living for others. The way of Jesus Christ – the way which the saints have followed – shows us that it is better, that is more fulfilling and more human – to care more about other people than to care about myself. I want to leave behind a group of young people who care more about others than they do themselves. This is what I want you to remember: that life is best lived when it is lived for God and for others! Live in this way, my dear young friends, and despite what storms of life may be befall you, your hearts will not long be troubled, for you will rest securely in the embrace of God.
This is why Benedict XVI urged us to "discover in volunteer work a way to grow in the self-giving love which gives life its deepest meaning."
Please, do not wait to be personally asked. Do you not worry about your television shows or other unimportant things. Don't worry about how much you have to do already. Ask the Lord, "Should I help with this or with this?" And volunteer. Remember: God cannot be outdone in generosity.