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Survey reveals growth in orders’ associates

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Associates committed to religious orders in America now total more than 25,400, with another 2,700 members in formation, according to a survey released recently by the North American Conference of Associates and Religious. A less extensive survey five years ago recorded 14,500 associates.

The 11,000 increase is “a startling statistic,” said Sister of Charity Ellen R. O’Connell, co-executive director of the conference.

“The message for the church is that lay men and women desire to give a part of their lives to the church and are seeking ways to do this,” O’Connell said. “People want to connect. The challenge for religious institutes is to understand the impetus of this group and better integrate it into the living of their missions.”

The study, released to conference members at their annual meeting held May 5-7 in San Jose, Calif., found differences between men’s and women’s reasons for affiliating with religious institutes. Associates in men’s communities are attracted by the ministries of the order and a desire to work with vowed members, in addition to a desire for community. In institutes of women religious, associates are more attracted by a desire for deeper spirituality, especially the spirituality, or charism, of the community. They seek opportunities for prayer and faith sharing with other vowed members and associates. Women make up 84 percent of all associates.

“Large numbers of people are saying they need a different lifestyle [from that of the vowed or ordained], but they need to connect and offer their gifts,” O’Connell said.

Jean Sonnenberg, an associate of the Sisters of Bon Secours in Baltimore and member of the conference’s survey committee, compared the decline in vowed religious and rise in associates to the 19th-century tension over the creation of apostolic orders, which were opposed by many in the church hierarchy who thought members of religious communities should stay in their cloisters.

“There’s something parallel going on here,” she said. “Members of religious communities don’t like to see a particular lifestyle die out. Maybe it’s not dying out, but a new way is being born.”

Sonnenberg said the large number recorded in the conference’s survey “is a hopeful sign for the future. I think it’s telling us the Spirit is at work here.”

O’Connell says 53 percent of religious zcommunities have associate relationships. Half of those relationships were begun in the 1980s, although the movement toward involving the laity in this way began after the Second Vatican Council, O’Connell says. At first, the connection was largely to women’s communities; half of the associations with men’s orders began in the 1990s.

The study found 12 percent of male and 3 percent of female associates are of African-American descent, and 8 percent of male and 7 percent of female associates are of Hispanic descent. For men’s religious orders, Asian/Pacific Islanders, at 9 percent, are counted the second-highest ethnic group after Caucasians.

Ninety-two percent make a formal commitment to live the mission of the religious institute as associates, and 94 percent of them renew that commitment. “The fact that people are committing and renewing their commitment shows they want to have that enduring in their lives,” O’Connell said.

Many of these associates are younger than vowed members. The largest age group of female associates, 30 percent, is composed of women in their 50s, and the largest age group of men, 31 percent, are in their 60s. Sixteen percent of both women and men are in their 40s.

The study, titled “Partners in Mission: A Profile of Associates and Religious in the United States,” was the first to include associates to men’s congregations. It was commissioned by the conference and conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate -- CARA -- at Georgetown. Seventy-five percent of the 1,100 Roman Catholic religious institutes surveyed responded. Not included were members of third orders, prayer associations and oblates to particular monasteries.

For O’Connell, the growing number of associates is “a cause for rejoicing. The Spirit is working and attracting people in this way. The work of God is continuing in new ways within religious congregations.”

However, O’Connell said rejoicing is mixed with a bit of grieving. “There has to be some element of sadness that we’re not seeing the same numbers coming into religious life as I experienced it, but part of our heritage is the mission of Jesus and how we can help that to happen.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000