Vinnies president affirms Society’s Catholicity

17 Sep 2008

By The Record

Being a Vincentian is not just work, it’s a way of life, centred on Christ and a genuine love of God and neightbour, the new State president of the St Vincent de Paul Society has told The Record’s Anthony Barich.


Joseph Clement Astruc


New St Vincent de Paul Society WA State president Joseph Clement Astruc has affirmed the Catholicity of the society in a wide-ranging interview with The Record after his commissioning Mass on August 24.
For Mr Astruc, 63, being a Vincentian is not just work, it’s a way of life – though even as State president he’s still a volunteer, doing home visits and looking after the largely parish-based members.
Mr Astruc first encountered the Society in Zambia, where he worked in management in the corporate world for a Canadian footwear manufacturer.
He followed his family to Australia in the 1960s and has worked for the Society for 34 years.
Now retired, he brings to the Society experience in corporate management, finance, marketing and advertising from his professional life.
Having been vice president of a Rotary Club for 10 years, he was appointed head of the first committee of the Cheshire Foundation in Botswana, which built, under his guidance, a centre for 60 disabled children.
The patron of that foundation’s first home was former Botswana President Sir Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, a central figure in that country’s transformation from British colony to multiparty democracy.
In 1988, he was appointed by Bishop Boniface Setlalekgoski of Gaberone as the liaison officer between the Church and the corporate world for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Botswana.
Mr Astruc’s life – and work – is deeply embedded in Catholicism.
“To love God and to love our neighbour is the most important thing about why we are Vincentians,” he says.
“We don’t join to volunteer, but to love our neighbour.”
A major turning point in his own faith journey occurred when a priest in Botswana helped him realise that his best friend was not the priest or anyone else he worked or lived with, but Jesus, who he encounters in his everyday life and in the Blessed Sacrament.
Mr Astruc’s work is faith-driven. He prays daily and visits Jesus present in the tabernacle in any church whenever he’s in the area.
He disagrees with the re-badging of the Society’s fundraising shop fronts as ‘Vinnies’ centres – a national initiative outside of his control – but can see the practical side in that it’s a colloquial term of endearment and helps recruit youth unfamiliar with Catholic concepts.
Mr Astruc admits that elements of the Society’s public face has caused some angst among its mainly Catholic membership base, but he said that the Society has never lost its Catholic identity, and never will.
He was surprised to learn that a condom promotional poster had been placed on a wall at Bendat House, a referral and support centre for street kids in Northbridge run jointly by the Society with the Rotary Club of Perth, and said it must be taken down.
“I think we should drop that sign,” he said. “But it’s a joint venture with Rotary, who have a say on that.
“Do we break a partnership, though many people benefit from the centre’s work? Maybe sometimes.
“It is a difficult question, but it’s not a question of what is more important. This is the teaching of the Church.
“We abide by the teachings of the Church, but the balance must be there because it’s not entirely our project. I’d like to go back and take that poster down.”
Lucinda Ardagh, the Society’s State fundraising and public relations manager, pointed out that anyone who signs on to work in the Society must accept and follow its Catholic ethos, or they won’t fit in.
“You can’t have someone come in who’s not Catholic then not agree with those values,” she said.
“It’s very hard to survive, because every member around you agrees and every event we have is a Mass.
“I’ve had people who have said they don’t want to work for the Church, and I say, ‘fine’, this is what you’ve signed on for – the whole package.
“If you can’t cope with opening and closing every meeting with a prayer, you go and work somewhere else.
“You don’t just accept the charity side of the work.”
Then there are the ‘Vinnies’ centres around the country that offer clothing and goods, sales from which are used to provide resources for people in need.
“I know there’s angst about that in the community,” Mr Astruc said of the Vinnies centres losing the reference to ‘Saint’ in their name.
“Personally, for me it’s always the St Vincent de Paul Society. It’s not ‘Vinnies’.
“Sometimes (the Vinnies name) is a thing of endearment. We cannot stop that.
“But for us, for myself as State president, I shouldn’t use ‘Vinnies’, which is only used in shop fronts.”
But even then, Mr Astruc, or ‘Clem’ as he’s affectionately known, is philosophical about embracing others. He gave the example of a volunteering couple that did not like praying the Hail Mary, and wanted to leave the Society. He kept them involved by telling them they can still volunteer at the shop fronts.
Since being commissioned at Ocean Reef’s St Simon Peter Church last month, Mr Astruc has made a point of acknowledging the crucial work of the seven past State presidents, and seeks to draw on their vast experience and knowledge.
A big challenge for the Society, he says, is the ‘Generation X’ are not volunteering. Many Society members are elderly and must be guided.
It’s in this way that he sees himself as a grandfather to a family – “the greatest family you can join”. 
There are 12,500 volunteers and 800 members, and the one of his first orders of business was to promote unity among them.
“My goal as State president is to promote unity, because it is my strong belief that in unity there is strength, and that strength can achieve our common goal to improve the welfare of the people we assist,” he said upon being appointed for a three-year term as president.