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Associates represent a booster shot for traditional forms of religious life


Religious life as we knew it when Ingrid Bergman was a nun may be on the wane, but the ripple effect of those charismatic founders and their followers still bathes souls with the elusive graces that flowed from their lives. Today religious life needs new channels to allow those rivers of grace to keep flowing

The North American Conference of Associates and Religious is one such new channel. An “associate” is a layperson who affiliates with a religious congregation (in varying degrees of formality), seeking to apply the community's charism and spirituality to his or her life and work in the world.

Laywoman Jean Sonnenberg, co-executive director of the national conference along with Sister of Charity Ellen O’Connell, considers the phenomenal growth of the organization “a plot on the part of the Holy Spirit.”

She could be right. The conference is arguably the fastest growing Catholic lay movement in the United States. Like Moses, it is leading often weary and diminishing religious communities higher up on the mountain to God.

Organized rather casually in 1980 and not meeting formally until 1989, the group now has an estimated 20,000 members in the United States and another 11,000 in Canada. It's Peter all over again, strengthening his brothers and sisters in their faith. The group may, indeed, be a vital booster shot to traditional religious life.

Precise figures are hard to come by. Not every religious congregation with an associates program has signed up with the organization. The conference has only Jean and Sr. Ellen as part-time employees and, thus far, neither has had time to count the house. However, the associates of the women's congregations alone now number nearly 15,000 in the United States.

The conference doesn't file its rather loosely gathered figures with official agencies of the church, and it dreads lockstep organization lest it fall into the clutches of a chancery file cabinet and be declared a canonical society. Like Sarah in the Hebrew Scriptures, conference members are open to the unexpected.

“The associates are part of religious life,” O’Connell said. “They are part of the critical mass that will continue religious life. Many are doing much the same work as members of the organization.” O’Connell moderates the associates connected with her congregation -- just over 50 members, including one priest.

Last spring in the national conference gathered in Fort Mitchell, Ky., just outside Cincinnati. They met for three days, 265 associates and their religious siblings. Representing over 69 religious congregations from 33 states and tow Canadian provinces. At round tables, members discussed ways and means of finding a deeper relationship with God through the charisms of the congregations represented.

Religious vocations continue to decline relentlessly. In the past decade, total numbers of religious sisters, brothers and priests in the United States have dropped nearly 21 percent, from 138,818 to 110,057. Studies show that all the billboards and brochures in the world won't reverse this trend. Some congregations haven't had a candidate in 10 years. Novitiates once bulging with eager members are now retirement homes where aging religious wait for God.

There are now more nuns over 90 than under 30. It's a new world. The habit day processions of white veiled novices and peach-fuzzed brothers and seminarians of pre-Vatican II days are long gone. However, the charism of the congregations they served continues to imbue others like the smell of a nun's serge sleeves.

The separate congregations have their distinct personalities, mission and spirituality. John Paul II's efforts to enhance the image of religious life by canonizing its founders have been greatly appreciated, but they have not left lines outside convent or monastery doors. The associates conference, in fact, doesn't intend that the associates will rush to put their hands to plows. It seeks only to use the charisms of both the founders and their congregations to pass on the gifts that inspired the parent congregations.

Associates study the mission and charisms of their congregations. They want to live these things out. They also seek a commitment of some kind. They are looking for the mutual support of prayer and the involvement in some kind of ministry, doing something for others. They can go much deeper spiritually than their parish may allow them and they have a lot more freedom to develop.

The Congregation of Christian Brothers (formerly called the Christian Brothers of Ireland) may be typical. The Brother Rice Associates now has 100 members, 40 of them in the United States. The remainder are attached to the province's Peruvian schools.

According to their director, Br. John Jerry McCarthy, in 1998 four new members have been made a commitment, perhaps a dozen others are considering it. “We call them the Brother Rice Associates in order to emphasize the relationship with the spirituality of the congregation's founder, Blessed Edmund Ignites Rice,” McCarthy said.

“Four of our people are priests; only seven or eight are not married. They range in age from 29 to 79, and 50 percent are men.” (An unusually high number. Nationwide, some 90 percent of the associates are females.) At least eight of the Brother Rice Associates have earned doctorates, a reflection of the teaching mission of the congregation.

Sonnenberg is an associate of the Bon Secours Congregation, now based in Marriottsville, Md., which came to the United States from France in 1881 and is involved in health care. Typically, its associates tend to share the same mission as the congregations to which they are attached. However, there is little bar coding.

“They are just seeking a deeper relationship with God,” Sonnenberg said. “They feel called to mysticism and a prophetic stance.”

The associates are determinately noncanonical, and they do not commit themselves to specific periods of service. Some members, indeed, are not Catholics, and some Catholics have an interest in Buddhist spirituality. About 20 percent are former religious, still tied to their congregations by bonds of faith and loyalty. It's a challenging bouillabaisse.

“The church has never viewed laity as being capable of prophetic prayer,” Sonnenberg said. “The associates give them the courage to live the gospel.”

Congregations that are predominantly priests have been slower to embrace associates. Only about 10 percent of the present roster is from priest-dominated congregations. There remains a tendency among clerical congregations to view such groups as allergens. Further, some congregations view the pope's dictum to return to their roots as a warning to be uncontaminated by any new ideas.

Associate groups share a few things in common. The national conference asks that all members spend at least 15 minutes each day in some form of centering prayer or meditation and that each associate perform some form of volunteer service (soup kitchens, hospital volunteer and so on).

By and large, the associates are not involved in the administration or government of the congregations to which they are attached. “I can barely balance my own checkbook,” one associate said. “I don't want to try to balance theirs, and I don't want them looking at mine.” However, some congregations invite associates -- and former members -- to their periodic provincial chapters as nonvoting members.

“We just want to share in their mission and ministry,” Sonnenberg said. “Vatican II issued a call to the laity. Now, circumstances are such that they have no other choice but to invite the laity, and it's like putting a key into a lock. It fits.”

The concept is hardly a new one. Any visitor to a Catholic high school can uncover lay teachers so imbued with the sponsoring congregation's mission that they outshine a few of the religious themselves whose great yes has been followed by an infinite series of little noes.

Barring a personal appearance from the Vatican balcony by the Holy Spirit, religious life will probably continue to decline both in number, in apostolates -- even in spirit. However, the bewildering mix of missions and charisms that marked the uncounted congregations of the past few centuries could energize the parent congregations and lead to new models of new religious life that could enrich the church.

The North American Conference of Associates and Religious can be reached at (410) 442-2115 or NACAR@erols.com.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. His E-mail address is unsworth@megsinet.net.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998