Young adults finding Catholic-based volunteer service model a poor fit

The model of full-time volunteer service pioneered by Catholics is finding few takers among the younger generation, reports Christine Lenahan in America magazine (April). The Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), the pioneer of the Catholic post-graduate service industry, is reporting a volunteer shortage. Of the corps’ three community houses in New York, two have closed in recent years. Only two years ago, a cohort of 186 volunteers served in 30 different community houses; by the following year, the JVC “paused its presence” in 12 houses, with 89 volunteers in 2023–2024. Today, four of the remaining houses operating in the U.S. only have two volunteers living in them. The problem is not limited to the JVC. The Mercy Volunteer Corps has seen similar enrollment declines, and the Catholic Volunteer Network, an umbrella organization of dozens of Catholic volunteer programs networking and sharing resources, has seen a significant decrease in the annual number of volunteers joining its 77 different member organizations, especially since the pandemic. Five of these member organizations have closed permanently. It also is not just Catholic organizations that have seen a drop in full-time volunteering, as the trend is also present in groups like the Peace Corps.


While civic engagement, racial equality and the environment rank among the highest concerns of Generation Z, they are not volunteering on many of these same issues in a way similar to older generations. Lenahan writes that the trend of declining volunteers in Catholic organizations may be due less to lack of interest than to the model established by the JVC and replicated by other religious and secular volunteer groups: living simply in a community among the poor and working for social change does not register for younger people today. Part of the reason is due to practical concerns, such as student loan debt and mental health issues raised by the pandemic, as well as a reluctance to commit to intensive volunteer experiences. Looming over this decline in full-time volunteering is the sharp downturn in trust that the younger generation has toward organized religion, which remains the seedbed for these intensive forms of volunteering. Some of these organizations, like the Mercy Volunteer Corps, have “re-imagined” their programs to include short-term volunteering. The Loretto Justice Program has replaced their model of voluntary poverty, based on a stipend, with one resembling more of a job, paying participants a living wage.