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Orders find new life in lay associates

Special Report Writer
Convent Station, N.J.

A new area of growth emerging in North American Catholicism -- associate members of religious orders -- is giving renewed life to those orders and a new role to laity who want to be part of the spirituality and work of religious communities.

Despite plummeting numbers of vocations over the past two decades, the vision and ministry of thousands of religious sisters and brothers are being expanded to "associates," lay men and women who form a special relationship with the orders but not as traditional sisters or brothers.

Enthusiasm for the "associates movement" was abundant during the recent 1997 North American Conference of Associates and Religious, but there were were also warnings of problems on the horizon, of vowed members feeling threatened by the influx of lay members.

"The energy of the Spirit is especially found as associates enter into ministerial roles both within and beyond those of their religious congregations," said Sister of Charity Ellen O'Connell of the Bronx, one of more than 200 who met May 2-4 at Xavier Center here. She directs the lay associates of the Sisters of Charity of New York.

Those attending, lay and religious, came from 28 states and four Canadian provinces and represented 89 religious communities. Although most were women, a few men and a few couples with children also were present.

No one at the conference had accurate figures on how many lay persons have sought to become associates of religious congregations nor even how many orders actually welcome lay involvement. A 1994 survey found that some 14,500 lay persons were participating as associates in about 300 religious communities. The consensus among many orders over the last five years has been that the movement is growing steadily in numbers and in options available to lay people.

What is known is that the number of nuns has declined markedly from a peak in the United States of 181,421 in 1966 to less than half that number today -- 89,125, according to the Catholic Almanac. The number of brothers has also fallen over the past two decades -- from 9,233 in 1974 to 6,357 in 1996.

Since 1990, 47 single and married women and men and one priest have become associates of the Sisters of Charity of New York. "They want to live the mission and charism of the Sisters of Charity in their own lifestyle," O'Connell said.

Associates usually participate in an orientation period of 12 to 18 months, during which they learn about an order's ministry and the charism of its founder. The charisms -- special gifts and characteristics -- of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac and Blessed Edmund Rice have all been credited with attracting associates to religious communities.

Renewable commitment

Associates take no vows but make a commitment of one or two years, which is renewable and can, in some congregations, be extended to a lifelong commitment.

Faith-sharing is a prominent feature of associate/religious life, said O'Connell, who pointed to Vatican II's "Constitution on the Laity" and especially to Pope Paul VI's letter "Evangelism in the Modern World" as calling laity to a deeper level of evangelization and service.

Pope Paul wrote that the consecrated lives of religious "are a sign of total availability to God, the church and the community," while the laity -- on the other hand -- exercise a special form of evangelization, which calls them to use "every Christian and evangelical possibility latent in the affairs of the world."

The movement is "mutually enriching" for both, said Sister of Charity Julie Scanlan, who directs the 135-member Seton Associates at Convent Station. The group, which began in 1990, includes a couple in their 20s as well as retired persons, homemakers, college professors, a deacon and three priests.

People are "yearning for an adult spirituality" rather than the parent-child relationship that characterized many religious communities before Vatican II, Jean Sonnenberg, one of the planners of the event, said in explaining the "explosive growth" of the movement. "This is a way for lay people to live a committed spiritual life that runs parallel to that of religious who observe the evangelical counsels" of poverty, chastity and obedience, she said.

"Religious congregations are able to help the laity with issues of spirituality in a way that the parish is not," said Sonnenberg, a former nun who married, raised a daughter, divorced, obtained a theology degree and now directs the Bon Secours Associates in Marriottsville, Md. Along with O'Connell and Scanlan, she planned the weekend meeting.

Sonnenberg said that the associate/religious phenomenon could be the harbinger of a major change in attitude and in ministerial responsibility in the church. Religious orders "have a significant role to play in fostering a fundamental shift from a spirituality that has external authority as a primary reference point to a spirituality that enables one to trust one's own inner experience of the Divine, to interpret it for one's life and to live out of one's own experience of the Divine in the context of a sacred community," she said.

As coordinator of the North American Conference of Associates and Religious, Sonnenberg has interviewed nearly 100 congregations with associates. Her findings indicate that most associates are looking to a religious congregation for spirituality, community and ministry. They are glad to be included in chapters and assemblies but are not pressing for a vote, she said.

Unspoken fear

Moreover, they don't want to live with the religious or get involved in governance and finance issues. But some religious have "reservations about what associates are up to," Sonnenberg said. "There's an unspoken fear that religious will lose their identity as religious," if associates are allowed membership.

Sonnenberg, who operates a data base for the movement and edits its quarterly newsletter, The Associate, said she hopes to "put to rest some of the fears some religious have voiced about associate communities" -- including those of leadership groups of nuns. "I don't see the associate movement as barging into areas unique to religious life, such as those areas governed by canon law."

Some attending the conference complained that religious are not as free in sharing about their lives as are associates. They called this "the shadow side" of religious life.

"What's to hide?" asked Dolores Nice, director of the Mercy Associates in Burlingame, Calif. "I grew up with sisters. I went to your grade school, your high school, your college. I worked with you. It's no big deal," she said.

But it is a big deal to many nuns, noted Maryknoll Sr. Maria Rieckelmann. Sharing membership in the order is "outside our perception of ourselves," said the keynoter, who is a practicing psychiatrist.

She noted that some nuns have expressed fear that associates will "come in, change the rules and take all our money." Behind their anxiety is the fear of "loss of control," she said. But "we must let go of control if we're to be contemplatives in any sense of the word," she said.

Rieckelmann said that "married women often glom onto a religious community, imagining, 'Now I'll be someone.' ... Often the first calling to associate status is the beginning of a reclaiming for a woman" who has a low sense of her own worth, the psychiatrist said.

Not all associates are Catholics. Some orders, like the Sisters of Bon Secours, have accepted Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and United Church of Christ members as associates.

United Methodist minister Jeanne Conover of Mechanicsville, Va., served 16 years as a chaplain in a hospital run by the Sisters of Bon Secours and became a Bon Secours associate in 1991.

"I saw the concern the sisters showed not just for their patients, but also for the families of patients," she said. "I found the associate group a very sustaining faith community. ... It confirmed for me that we're all connected. My denomination wasn't a problem," Conover said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997