1.700 representatives of 50 organizations have been invited to a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. on September 9, 2007, by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn and Federal President Heinz Fischer. Disregarding their personal political beliefs, almost half of all Austrians who are older than 15 years engage in voluntary work. The biggest association and organizations in charity work are: the Red Cross, the Caritas, mountain rescue services, crisis intervention centers, the auxiliary fire brigade and relatively new branches in charity work, such as the hospice movement. Volunteers dispose of something full time workers do not have: time. Most voluntary work (done by 62% of the population) happens in the neighborhoods. Gratuitous work guarantees a high quality of life. The Austrian Government pointed out that the social maintenance of the population could not be guaranteed or financed without voluntary work. Thus, the Austrian Government announced the "Year of Voluntary Work" in 2001. In the course of this year, "voluntary work" got an official definition: working outside one's own household not due to a legal duty, "gratuitous" meaning without monetary rewards. In the encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," Pope Benedict XVI. identifies voluntary work as a "major phenomenon of our times." He knows, that, from time to time, volunteers enjoy being awarded. "I want to especially thank and acknowledge those who engage in voluntary work in any way," writes the Pope in the encyclical. On His visit to Austria, he is going to say it personally.
Voluntary work? Naturally! Almost half of all Austrians who are older than 15 years engage in voluntary charity work.
"Naturally, I am doing that!" says Mary, on the run to catch the bus to get to her voluntary job at the telephone help line center. For Michael, it has become natural to work for an emergency medical service for free. For the not so young Angela, it has become a natural daily routine to visit sick people whom nobody else visits.
The word "naturally" expresses that for these people their work as volunteers has almost become second nature: they do it without thinking and questioning themselves why they do it, what they gain from it or whether it pays off.
This is the reason why people, who spend all their spare time on charity projects, have a hard time putting the reasons for their engagement into words. They see that it has to be done and do it. Naturally.
They do not get money for their efforts but sometimes these people get awarded the thanks and acknowledgment they deserve. For instance, on September 9, 2007, in a meeting with the Pope in the Vienna Konzerthaus. 1.700 people representing all volunteers in various charity organizations have been invited by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn and the Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer, who is a member of the Social Democratic Party. This mirrors the wonderful facets of voluntary work: there is a great demand for people who are willing to sacrifice their spare time and do not care about heritage, religion, social status, or world views. This can be regarded as a general rule though also the organizations volunteers work for have a history, tradition, and a certain disposition. If it is important to stay in tune, like-minded people find each other. This can establish borders or tear them down: their joint aim is the good deed and what their social conscience demands. Whoever or whatever formed that conscience.
Little Honor, Much Work
The German word "Ehrenamt," a compound of the words "honor" and "job" meaning "voluntary work," give a vital clue about the work of volunteers: there is little honor and much work. The "work" part consists of being responsible, punctual, conscientious, and loyal. Preferably not just for a single project but for a whole lifetime. This is the basic idea of voluntary work and an astonishing number of young people can do this. Even more people can be won over for a certain temporary project especially in social fields which are extremely exhausting. The best example in Austria is the project "72 Stunden ohne Kompromiss" (meaning "72 hours without any compromise"). Every year, more than 5.000 young people engage in 350 different social projects for three days. The Catholic youth, youngCartias.at and Hitradio Ö3 organize the biggest youth social event in Austria. Due to raising a family, building a house, and occupational stress, many people cannot do voluntary work throughout their whole life. Still, voluntary work shapes these people for a lifetime. They act socially even if they do not get an advantage from it.
The Resource "Time"
Social voluntary work is a stepping stone for becoming a professional social worker. Volunteers are well educated and know the realities of doing social work. That a volunteer could take away the job of somebody who is working full-time is not really an issue. People are not really fighting for jobs in social services. Nevertheless, the cooperation between voluntary and full-time workers does not happen on its own: it takes organizational structure and functioning communicative strategies.
Sometimes, the full-time workers have the notion that it would be less trouble without the volunteers who need additional counseling. Nevertheless, the cooperation works out thanks to the faith the full-time workers have in the volunteers before the volunteers have even started their work: they admit "strangers" to their working fields, they meet the inquisitive gaze of an outsider, and they are not afraid of an unconscious though existent "inspection" of their work. "The outside perspective inhibits a "trained incapacity," this means that an outsider can bring a fresh breeze to an organization which has reached a point where it cannot see the wood for the trees," says Christoph Petrik-Schweifer, General Secretary of the Caritas. It still holds true that "there is the right place for every volunteer - it just has to be found," says Petrik-Schweifer, and adds: "Voluntary work always pays off." Preparatory talks are necessary, and the more somebody has to work with people in his voluntary work, the more this has to be done. Full-time workers appreciate volunteers for something they do not dispose of to such an extent: time.
Guarantor for Quality of Life
About 50 organizations have been invited to a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. in the Vienna Konzerthaus. Voluntary members of the biggest association and organizations in Austria are the Red Cross, the Caritas, mountain rescue services, crisis intervention centers, the auxiliary fire brigade, and relatively new branches in charity work, such as the hospice movement which disposes of highly qualified voluntary workers. As malicious rumors say, the variety of organizations is due to the fact that "Every Austrian is a President and every other Austrian is Secretary to the Board." Those who work for free should also get a little reward, at least acknowledgement. A title, a badge for many years of work, for 5.000 rescue operation with the emergency medical service, for brave efforts in catastrophes. Francis, a young bricklayer, who voluntarily works shifts in an ambulance one night a week and pursues his job during the day, does not think about the reward. He just does it - naturally. A few years ago, the Austrian Government recognized that the social maintenance of the population could not be guaranteed or financed without voluntary work. Thus, the Austrian Government announced the "Year of Voluntary Work" in 2001. The current Minister of Social Affairs, the social democrat Erwin Buchinger, considers the relevance of voluntary work for society to be obvious: "The quality of life in Austria would not be as high as it is, if not so many people were engaged in voluntary and gratuitous neighborly help, if they did not work in social, nursing, emergency medical, and health services, and if they did not work in sports and facilitate cultural diversity. In the course of the "Year of Voluntary Work," "voluntary work" got an official definition: "voluntary" means working outside one's own household not due to a legal duty; "gratuitous" meaning without monetary rewards. The Government took stock of voluntary work in Austria: 43,8% of the Austrian population, so about three million people, do voluntary work for about 15 years. Most voluntary work (done by 62% of the population) happens in the neighborhoods. Even if neighborly help and engagement in the church do not count as social voluntary work, these groups and the voluntary emergency medical services are among the biggest voluntary groups in Austria. The number of volunteers in sports is considerably lower.
In the light of these numbers of volunteers, voluntary work has to appear natural to Austrians. The fact that the efficient Austrian auxiliary fire brigade is based on the voluntary engagement of fire men, except for a few professional fire brigades in the cities, and that mainly volunteers drive the ambulance cars, makes voluntary service become natural to people living in Austria. It is so natural that the opinion prevails that it is the same everywhere else. On meetings with eastern neighbors, communication problems arise about the meaning of the term "voluntary service/work" beyond language borders. Austrian Catholic organizations are increasingly asked to help church organizations in the East to develop voluntary social organizations. These intentions often meet strong opposition as voluntary social engagement had been compulsory during the Communist Regime. This led to a destruction of the meaning and comprehension of real voluntary efforts. This is different with the western neighbors. In Bavaria, where Pope Benedict XVI. grew up, voluntary work is as self-evident, or even "natural" as in Austria. In the encyclical letter "Deus Caritas Est," Pope Benedict XVI. identifies voluntary work as a "major phenomenon of our times." He knows, that, from time to time, volunteers enjoy being awarded. "I want to especially thank and acknowledge those who engage in voluntary work in any way," writes the Pope in the encyclical.
On His visit to Austria, he is going to say it personally: in a festive meeting on Sunday September 9 in the simply beautiful Great Hall of the Vienna Konzerthaus. The volunteers in Austria are looking forward to this honor, which they think is natural.
Mag. Gabriele Neuwirth
Editor at the Vienna Church Newspaper "Der Sonntag"
Chairperson of the "Verband katholischer Publizisten Österreichs"