Lay associates a growing trend

Although many religious congregations have decreased in membership since the Second Vatican Council, a growing number of laypeople are offering a vital presence through associate membership.

What was largely unheard of 20 years ago has spread to 378 religious institutions of professed priests, sisters and brothers. A new survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the North American Conference of Associates and Religious (NACAR) reported that the number of associate laypeople has more than doubled in 15 years. Over 55,000 are serving among the congregations of professed sisters, brothers and priests in the United States and Canada, up from to 25,500 in 2000. And in 2000, there was an 11,000 increase from 1995.

In the scheme of religious history, the associate movement is young and still evolving. In the early days, congregations invited people into an associate relationship less formally after they showed an interest and a calling to share the mission. The movement grew, along with awareness of the mutually beneficial relationship. NACAR celebrated 20 years this year as a promoter and a catalyst for the associate movement in North America.

Deeper spiritual life

There are 289 female communities and 89 male communities with associate programs that participated in the survey. Many of the congregations for women allow men to join as associates, and male congregations also often welcome women. It’s open to anyone, married or single, and married couples can join together or separately.

Most of the participating congregations have an older population and likewise, the majority of associates tend to be over 50 years old, although there is a range of ages. Given that many of the members of religious communities have reached retirement age and beyond, the survey showed that about 80 percent of lay directors/coordinators agree that the associates’ relationships are vital to the future of the religious community.

The level of participation of associates varies widely. Some are limited to sharing in common prayer, retreats and volunteer activities, while others are more involved to the point of planning and attending all sessions of the congregation’s general chapter. However, associates do not have voting privileges, as that is a canonical responsibility. Nor do they make permanent vows, although they do usually make some kind of initiation and commitment.

The biggest attraction identified for associates is a desire for a deeper spiritual life and the sense of community. Jeanne Connolly, vice president of the NACAR board and director of covenant companionship with the Wheaton Franciscan sisters in Wheaton, Illinois, has been an associate for 21 years. Her congregation has included associates for 33 years and currently has 39 of them.

According to Connolly, laymen and laywomen become associates to develop a deeper spirituality, belong to a religious community and to share in their charism — the specific gifts and mission given by God.

“It’s mostly about relationship and deepening of the spiritual life,” Connolly said. “That was the motivation for me.”

She stated that associates provide witness to our baptismal call to share in the Gospel through their daily lives. It is an opportunity to grow deeper in faith, in relationships, in trust of God, in recognizing the goodness of all creation and in serving all of God’s creation.

“I cannot imagine my life in any other way,” Connolly said.

Carrying on the legacy

Sister Kathy Andrews, a co-director for the associates and a sister with the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine in Cleveland for 56 years, said the benefits are mutual.

There are 33 sisters in community and 60 associates with 11 more in formation, including a retired Benedictine priest living in one of their nursing homes, a religious brother who was raised in one of their orphanages and even people of other faiths.

Associate opportunities offer a way for people play a significant part of their community and spiritual life. “They are an extension of our community and ministry,” Sister Kathy said. “Our reality is that our sisters are 70 and older; only a few in their 60s. We are looking at where will we be in 10 years. The associates are a way some of our legacy will be carried on.”

Margaret Ann Jablonski is co-director of associates along with Sister Kathy and has been an associate for 11 years.

“I had worked at one of their hospitals and attended one of their nursing schools in the 1960s,” she explained. “In the ’80s, I even thought about becoming a sister.”

Although Jablonski discerned that was not her vocation, she said she was still drawn to the order.

“I wanted to be involved in a faith-based community,” she said. “I was attracted to the sisters’ charity and how they encourage everyone they meet.”

Being an associate is not belonging to some club, according to Jablonski. “You live out the charism, every day, in every moment,” she said. “It’s a way of life.”

Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.