By Peter Bugden
IF you should have the privilege of meeting young Brisbane woman Cassandra Bull, it might not be too long before she’ll be talking lovingly about Fred.
Fred is not her boyfriend but she is in a rather deep and abiding relationship with him.
The truth is, he has her heart.
“Fred” is Cassandra’s affectionate way of referring to St Vincent de Paul Society founder Blessed Frederic Ozanam.
Just like Frederic, who was only 20 years old when he and some of his university friends founded the society in France to reach out to the poor, Cassandra, 28, also has a passion for serving the poor.
Despite a common impression that the St Vincent de Paul Society is an organisation for older people, Cassandra knows from her own experience that is not true.
“Vinnies was started by a 20-year-old; I joined as a young person and I’ll be there for life,” she said.
Her job now is to convince other young people to follow in her footsteps – and the footsteps of her friend Fred.
Vinnies in Queensland have backed her to succeed by employing her full-time as their state youth manager, after she started as a facilitator and moved through the society’s youth programs.
“I manage all of the youth programs and our school programs across the state,” Cassandra said.
“We have about 16 staff and a lot of young volunteers – about 1300 now statewide – and we have about 27 youth projects across all of the schools so it’s a really big network.”
For a young woman who was not born Catholic, Cassandra has come a long way in a few years to be now motivating others in living their faith.
“I actually became a Catholic when I was 15 so I didn’t grow up in a Catholic background,” she said.
“I did RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) at St William’s, Grovely (Brisbane), and joined the parish when I was 15, (with) Donna McDade as my sponsor.”
Cassandra made the decision to become a Catholic on her own.
She said her parents were from different religions, and they left it to her to make the decision about which faith she would follow but they required to her to study various religions first.
That included exploring many religions, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“But I just really love the tradition of the Catholic Church, and my Grandma was a very strong influence in my life and she was Catholic,” Cassandra said.
“She’d also converted to Catholicism so I think that kind of pulled it.
“And then when I met the people at St William’s I kind of, you know, you get swept up … It resonated … It kind of just felt like home.”
And feeling at home, Cassandra got very involved in parish life and the wider Church.
“I was in Antioch, I used to go to the Ignite (youth) rallies and I was part of the youth ministry group, and the youth Mass,” she said.
“I just got involved on a parish level while I was at school – went to Movers and Shakers (for Church youth leaders) in 2003.
“I ended up working for St William’s when I was 19. I was there as a youth minister and that was lovely.”
That was followed by two years in East Timor, including time with a Catholic Mission immersion experience and working with the Canossian Sisters.
“I was only meant to go there for three months and fell in love with East Timor and lived there for two years,” Cassandra said.
She worked there on an AusAID-funded community project.
“I wasn’t meant to finish my time in Timor until April but I got malaria and tuberculosis in December 2009 so I ended up getting Care Flighted out …”
Cassandra’s been with Vinnies ever since.
She first became involved with the charity as a university student in Townsville, and was particularly inspired by an immersion experience with the Aboriginal community on Palm Island.
She said it “was just amazing” spending a week on the island working with school children and supporting teachers.
Cassandra became so committed to the St Vincent de Paul Society that she was a member of the organisation’s first youth conference in Townsville.
“I really, really loved the experience of Palm Island and then, however God works – I saw the (advertisement for a Vinnies youth job in Brisbane) when I was coming back from Timor and (I thought), ‘Yeah, that’s the job I want’.
“And, luckily, they wanted me as well.”
Cassandra’s encouraged by the renewed enthusiasm for Vinnies in Catholic schools.
“When I first started working for the society in 2010 we only had eight youth projects statewide,” she said. “Now there are 27.”
She can see that by reaching out to young people in schools Vinnies is building momentum.
Part of that could be due to her passion for the organisation.
“Vinnies is all about good works and faith in action,” she said.
“And where I sit in the Church, that’s where I feel most at home.
“There’s this beautiful quote by one of our inspirations (Blessed) Rosalie Rondu (a religious sister and supporter of Blessed Frederic Ozanam) – ‘Never have I prayed so well as in the streets’; and that’s really my motivation.
“It’s not about the talking about God or anything like that. It’s just getting out and making a difference.
“I’m really lucky that this is my job, sincerely, because I get to do what I would normally do volunteering every day in a paid capacity but also to be able to inspire other people to get involved.”
Cassandra said she “truly believes, as Christians, we need to be acting out our faith”.
“It’s not good enough just to go to church. We need to do more than that,” she said.
Living her faith means “seeing Christ in the poor”.
Cassandra said she felt closest to God “being with the people we serve”.
“To meet people when they’re at their darkest moment and to be able to be part of that, that’s a privilege and that’s an honour, and it’s because of God that I’ve been able to do that,” she said about home visitation as a Vincentian..
“So, (being with) the people we assist, it’s really important and that’s when I feel most alive.
“Going to church is really important but being out with the people, that’s when you understand it.
“It brings the teachings to real life.
“It’s that Good Samaritan – all of that – actually in the flesh.
“You could walk away or you could share that burden, and sometimes it’s a lot.”
Cassandra’s about passing on that practical Christianity.
“We journey with (the young people), unpacking Fred’s story, which is inspirational, and getting them to get that charism and spirituality – through their action,” she said.
“So we can (say) ‘You know when they talk about loving your brother and sister, today on the Buddies Day you actually went out and did that’.”
Cassandra said “young people can make a difference (in Vinnies) … if (the experience) speaks to them”.
“Young people have to find where their passion is. (Vinnies) is not for everyone, but it sure is great if they want to live out their faith,” she said.
“They don’t realise the breadth of it until they step in, and then once they’re in, they’re in for life.”