By Paul Gray
The new National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society is a 36-year veteran of the charity’s work who hopes to become a “Vincentian to the Vincentians.”
Syd Tutton from Victoria takes over the national leadership role this month and aims to “encourage, inspire, challenge and support” the Society throughout Australia.
While the St Vincent de Paul Society has grown as a national organization in recent years, Mr Tutton remains an ‘old school’ Vincentian who continues to undertake the Society’s core work of visitation of the poor and needy in their own homes, through his local conference of the Society in Melbourne.
“Visitation of the poor is the heart of the Society’s work,” he told The Record. “It reflects the ethos and culture of Frederic Ozanam.
“Going to people in their homes is a special privilege. St Vincent de Paul said that even in the middle of Mass, if you hear the call of the poor, you should leave Mass aside for a few moments and go and attend to them.”
But despite this idealism, there are challenges facing the leadership of the St Vincent de Paul Society, as there are challenges facing all arms of the Church in Australia today.
One of those challenges is the ageing of its membership.
Mr Tutton says the Society has commissioned a study called the Generation X report, a comprehensive study of the generational aspect of the Society’s work conducted by Marist priest and author Fr Gerry Arbuckle.
As a result of this report, a “re-founding process” for the Society is underway nationally, Mr Tutton says. To support this process, a workshop is being put together which will be undertaken by all state branches.
Mr Tutton also places hope in World Youth Day, which could provide an injection of youth into the Society’s future work.
“We hope there will be a spin-off from World Youth Day that is not just triumphalism but regeneration,” he says.
To foster this hope, a “Vincentian Day” has been set down for July 16, as part of the World Youth Day celebrations. The Vincentian Day, which is also the feast of Our Lady of Carmel, will be the day after Pope Benedict arrives in Sydney.
The St Vincent de Paul Society is sponsoring members to come from all around Asia and Oceania to be part of the celebration. “There will be members from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Cambodia and other countries,” he says.
Importantly, these visitors will be young. Mr Tutton hopes the sight of young overseas Vincentians will inspire young Australian Catholics who gather for World Youth Day.
“I hope it will capture that fire and spirit in our work,” he says.
The new National President still feels plenty of that fire and spirit himself. He describes the Vincentian ethos as the core of his faith.
“Jesus’ message is love, and the people Jesus loved most were the poor and marginalized.” Mr Tutton says he does not want to appear “holy-moly,” but meeting the poor in the face-to-face situation of Vincentian work “fires you with idealism.”
He believes that of all the many works in the Church, the Vincent de Paul Society “really lives the message of Christ-love.”
Speaking about some recent personal experiences of visiting the poor and needy, he mentions one unfortunate man who lives his life “behind the eight ball” after experiencing a great deal of physical abuse as a youngster, including being raped.
“When you see a person like this, you know Jesus loves this person, just as much as He loves you,” Mr Tutton says.
Coincidentally, the Vincentian Day during the Pope’s visit also marks Mr Tutton’s 42nd wedding anniversary. With his wife he has six children and seven grandchildren.
Mr Tutton left school at 14 and spent 51 years in the electricity supply industry. After marriage, he educated himself through night school, acquiring business and accounting degrees.
He rose to become secretary and manager of major power supply organizations and companies. At one time he was Secretary of the World Energy Council. He says this organizational experience is of great help in his national role with the St Vincent de Paul Society.
“As an administrator, you are trained to see problems, even if you don’t know the solutions to the problems,” Mr Tutton says.
The Society established its national office in Canberra three years ago. Previously the national council met on a rotating basis in the various states.
Today all national meetings are held in Canberra. He says this has proven a much cheaper system.
The move to a national office also reflects other changes in society. “There really is a more national outlook for us now. That’s something that is also reflected in government circles.”
Until recent years the national council was usually seen as a co-ordinating body, though it has always been recognised by the international St Vincent de Paul organization as the responsible body for Australia.
Today’s national focus provides the opportunity for greater clout in the Society’s work of advocacy. Married to the role of visitation of the poor, the work of advocacy for the poor is something Mr Tutton believes in strongly.
He wants to see more awareness in the community of the larger issues behind the personal sufferings of the poor. For example, Mr Tutton describes mental illness and homelessness as “the two biggest problems in Australia today.”
He says from his own experience of visitation, perhaps four out of every five people who are poor or marginalised are suffering from mental illness.
Confronted by problems of poverty, some Australians argue that the poor should look after themselves better by budgeting. Mr Tutton says budgeting is important, but “when you are just scraping along, and someone says ‘you should budget,’ well, what can they budget with?”
He says that often poor people will be making serious attempts at budgeting, but then will be hit with a major crisis such as an illness. It’s in such situations that the St Vincent de Paul Society continues to play a vital role, not only for the Church but the nation.