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Lay associates flock to religious orders.


Thousands of women, and a smaller number of men, have joined U.S. religious communities in recent years. They are not vowed religious, whose numbers continue to dwindle. Laity are creating the new wave, linking themselves intentionally, sometimes quite formally, to those vowed religious and to their spiritualities, charisms, ministries and missions.

The new affiliates are known by various titles. Many congregations call them "associates." "Cojourners" are linked to Franciscan communities. Affiliates of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in the St. Louis province belong to the Medaille community; St. Paul province associates are called "consociates," the French word for companion, because when they were instituted, the word associate applied to the first year of a person considering sister membership; in the Hawaii vice province, associates are called ohana, the Hawaiian word for family.

Many communities avoid calling associates "members" because that word has canonical implications pertaining solely to vowed religious.

In this century, the phenomenon of association developed after Vatican II, which urged religious congregations to renewal that includes increased collaboration with laypeople.

Association caught on rapidly, as many congregations initiated associate relationships during the 1970s and '80s, until a survey conducted in 1994 by Louise Hembrecht and Paula Rae Rose, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity from Manitowoc, Wis., showed that 212 women's congregations with 50 or more members had more than 14,500 associates.

Some men's communities also have laypeople affiliated with them, but the relationship tends to differ, even when they are called "associates." Terminology referring to relationships with both men's and women's communities can be ambiguous (see related story).

Most associates or affiliates are women, although many women's communities welcome both men and women associates. They are a mixture of single, married, divorced and widowed people. Some clerics also associate with the women's communities.

By far the majority of associates, according to Hembrecht and Rose's study and other surveys, are in their 40s through 60s -- most in their 50s; next are people in their 70s; then those in their 30s; the eighty-somethings and twenty-somethings trail far behind.

Various researchers have found that associates link themselves to religious communities primarily for spiritual enrichment but additionally to share in the congregation's charism or spirit, ministry and mission.

The nature of association varies greatly, from one-on-one sharing with a sister sponsor to quite formal relationships that entail structured formation and preparation periods followed by public commitment ceremonies. Most congregations require no financial contribution from associates and provide no financial benefits to them. However, many communities report that at least some of their associates voluntarily contribute money as well as time to ministry and mission.

One of the many thousands of associates is Shirley Lieberman, a consociate with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, Minn., and director of the consociate program, which is representative of more developed programs. She is not "typical" because associates and their relationship with their communities differ so widely that none would be typical. But Lieberman exudes the fresh energy and devotion that many associates seem to have brought to religious life today.

"I love the CSJs," she said. "I feel as committed to the CSJ community as a vowed member is."

Sr. Jane Hurley, who serves on the CSJ membership team with two other professed sisters and Lieberman, said, "If there's anyone who can sell the CSJs, it's Shirley Lieberman."

Lieberman was a Sister of Mercy for nine years in Burlington, Vt. In 1969 she moved to Stillwater, Minn., as a lay director of religious education. There she met several CSJ sisters. "What impressed me the most at that time -- it still does," she said, "is they were happy, energetic women who were really about serving the dear neighbor."

She cultivated the connection to the community, although less actively after she married in 1971. Her husband, Dean, already had eight children, and the new couple added two more. Even so, when a CSJ friend in 1987 asked Lieberman whether she had ever thought of becoming a consociate, she attended a retreat and other gatherings. "I really liked what I saw," she said. "I didn't realize at the time, but I had the charism. I was part of the CSJs. So I stayed."

Lieberman said her attachment to the congregation "was always there, kind of an undercurrent" during her marriage. "I really wanted to be part of the spirit, the charism, to serve the dear neighbor." Additionally, she "felt the community empowered women to be who they could be, whatever they could be, and to use their gifts and talents." She could have become involved in any of the province's 92 ministries. She chose Peace House in Minneapolis, a hospitality center Sr. Rose Tillemans founded for people who drop in from the streets.


Sisters of the St. Paul province had begun talking about having associates back in the 1970s. They recalled that lay associates were part of the community when it was founded in 1650 in France. "The first mistress of novices was a layperson," Lieberman said, and a layperson paid transportation costs for the first six sisters who came to America. In 1981, a provincial general chapter recommended establishing an associate program. Within a year a membership committee was in place and the first consociate newsletter was printed.

By 1992 a part-time consociate program director was needed, and the discernment process resulted in Lieberman's taking on the position. In 1994 her position became full time, and the four-member membership team is new, created in 1995. In February 1995, Lieberman's husband died of a heart attack. For her, the CSJs had become community and church, so the day he died, she asked provincial leaders if his funeral celebration could take place in the provincial house chapel. Only once before had a male -- a priest chaplain -- been buried from there, but a few phone calls brought an exception to the rule.

"It was just marvelous," Lieberman said. "I was embraced by my community, and my family could come. I was celebrating his life and who he was with a group of people where I was. I would continue to be part of this community, and he would move on. The sisters just enfolded us, and I felt like from that point on, I was much more part of the community."

Today she is one of 65 to 70 consociates in the province. All but one are women, although the congregation welcomes male consociates. Each chooses his or her level of participation in the community's life and works and goes through a process -- being expanded from one year to two -- similar to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

The candidate undergoes a period of inquiry, then learns about the community's history and charism and takes part in assorted gatherings and retreats. Each gains a companion sister. Then, when the candidate is ready to become a consociate, she or he makes a public commitment on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, at the province's annual commitment ritual. In front of friends, families, sisters and other consociates, the new consociate expresses his or her desire to belong to the community along with the gifts he or she brings and his or her expectations from the community.

In other congregations, the time and content of formation programs vary "from a definite orientation process and period to monthly meetings to no formal program," said Hembrecht and Rose in their study. Orientation in most communities "seems to extend over a period of six months to a year or more," they said.

Potential CSJ consociates approach the congregation through various venues. Some are former vowed religious; some come as a result of their friendship with a sister; some have responded to an ad in the local Women's Press, which invites readers to "come see who we are."

Consociates may renew their commitments or may decide eventually not to continue the relationship. Five of the original six consociates remain consociates today, Lieberman said.

Occasionally a consociate will live with a group of sisters for a time. Some consociates serve on provincial committees and one is a consultant on the provincial council. All meetings, including chapter meetings, are open to consociates. Their positions are advisory, but their inclusion "says to the community and to the consociates that we're valued and important, that the resources we bring to community are honored and expected and used," Lieberman said.

Not all congregations offer their associates that level of participation, the Hembrecht-Rose study found. It recorded relations ranging from "preparing lunches for congregational meetings" to "spiritual affiliation" to multifaceted involvement in community prayer sessions, ministries and chapter discussions. One community reported that associates "are considered intimately associated" with it, sharing values, philosophy and prayer.

These considerable variations may come in for more scrutiny in the future because associates of various congregations are beginning to discover one another and compare notes. "Lots of networking and collaborating and sharing is going on between communities," Lieberman said.

A year ago, a first-ever intercongregational gathering brought together affiliates and associates from 20 Midwestern religious communities. Lieberman is on the committee planning a 1997, worldwide meeting of associates of the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph -- that is, associates of any St. Joseph congregation -- to examine membership and mission. Among CSJ consociates in the St. Paul province, "right now we have about six people who are looking at vowed membership," Lieberman said.

Neither she nor Hurley said consociates were the answer to the future of religious communities. "We are evolving," Lieberman said. "What we see in our time now is that we are shifting from communities as were to communities we are becoming."


That may take many forms, including temporary commitment or commitment to a particular ministry. Hurley said the congregation was contemplating some special form of relationship for volunteers in the congregation's ministries. Lieberman finds a quote from Dag Hammarskjold appropriate to the current situation of flux: "When the morning freshness has been replaced by the weariness of midday, when the leg muscles quiver under the strain, when the climb seems useless and suddenly nothing will go quite as you will, it is precisely then that you must not hesitate."


"We're not sure what we're becoming," said Lieberman. "It's a mystery. Part of the evolution is women like myself who approach the community and say, `I want to be part of the community. I want to share spirituality, share meaning, share ministry, share prayer. I want to grow old with you."'
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Title Annotation:Religous Life; thousands of unvowed lay women and some men
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 16, 1996
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