By Sallyann McCarthy
Thousands of women and men are joining Catholic religious congregations: not necessarily taking vows, but joining in the spiritual life, growth and ministry of hundreds of communities across the land.
These lay persons are becoming “associates” or “consociates” or “oblates” or “affiliates,” depending on the congregation to which they are joined. They do not take vows, but promise to direct their lives according to the congregation’s spirit and to apply the teachings and the mission of their congregation to their lives in the world, in their family circles, in their places of work, and in their civic and social activities. There are thousands of such persons praying and working in spiritual union with vowed men and women of various communities and receiving spiritual strength and inspiration from their association.
This past spring, 250 associates/consociates/oblates/affiliates, along with Sisters and Brothers from 13 different religious congregations based in the Midwest gathered at Sinsinawa Mound, Wis., for a day of reflection on “Radical Gospel Living” with Franciscan Friar Joseph Nangle, OFM. A day of sharing and renewal, it was the eighth bi-annual Gathering of Midwest Associates and Religious.
Fr. Nangle began the day by praising the “pioneering history of the Midwest congregations” that established a vibrant church in the early to mid-19th century and who led the incorporation of laity into their spirituality and Gospel way of life.
Co-author of “Francis and the Foolishness of God,” Fr. Nangle spent 15 years ministering in South America and becoming immersed in liberation theology before embarking on a career working for peace and justice primarily in the Washington, D.C., area. He and his co-authors founded Assisi Community in D.C., a mixed community of men and women, religious and lay, adults and children, dedicated to simple living and working for social change based on Gospel living.
“The laity,” he said, “are on the cutting edge of bringing the Gospel message — loving tenderly, acting justly, and walking humbly with God — to all people. Vowed religious (Sisters and Brothers) know how to ‘do’ community,” he added, noting that they bring this gift to the ongoing renewal of church.
The Midwest Gathering, first held in 1996 in Dubuque, was the first regional gathering in the United States. It was a forerunner of the broader organization — the North American Conference of Associates and Religious — initiated later that year in Cincinnati.
The appearance of regional and national groups representing associates, etc. and their sponsoring congregations are milestones in the growth of this burgeoning form of religious life, which dates back at least to the sixth century and the lay followers of St. Benedict in Italy. Franciscan apostolic congregations look to the “beguines” of 12th century Italy for their origins. Indeed, many apostolic religious congregations of women and men were founded by lay persons seeking to offer themselves for the service of God and neighbor within the church.
Genevieve Rafferty, an associate of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM), Davenport, described her vocation this way: “I soon realized that the CHM associates really cared for our world and its people and are doing something about it … I began to feel I was a real part of this group and as I was driving home I said to myself, ‘You better start turning off CNN and Law and Order and do your part!’ I am grateful for the experience and the chance to be an associate of such a wonderful group of women.”
CHM Sister Barbara Costello expresses another perspective: “Each associate is truly an extension of the vine we Sisters of Humility have enjoyed for years… their spirit, prayers, fasting and desire for God’s life in them is what I, too, desire,” she said. “The associates are teaching me how to live with God.”
CHM Associates are called to live the CHM mission within the context of their contemporary lives, explained CHM Associate Coordinator Pat Knopick. “They are women and men, young and old, married and single. They are teachers, business professionals, musicians, social workers, homemakers and retirees from a variety of professions. Most are Catholic but some are not. Their common bond is the deep resonance they have with the Humility spirit.” Since its founding in 1971, over 170 people have been CHM associates.
“Since 1985, Associate Partners of the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton, Iowa, (OSF) have striven to embrace the traditions and charisms of Francis and Clare, articulate them accurately, and model them individually and collectively,” explained Clinton area coordinator Sister Anne Martin Phelan, OSF. “Like Francis and Clare, we are committed to living Gospel values radically; we espouse compassion, diversity, equality, inclusivity and active nonviolence; and we support each other, strive to make a difference in our world and welcome others to share our vision,” she explained.
The 78 Clinton Franciscan associates meet regularly within four regions based in Clinton, Chicago, Lexington, Ky., and San Diego. Associates have joined Sisters in teaching English to immigrants, helping released convicts move back into society, practicing and preaching through their lives the ideals of nonviolence and raising funds to support the Franciscan mission in Tohatchi, N.M.