The newest edition of The Associate is now available to registered users for download here. Beginning with this issue, we are introducing a new feature. We will be publishing a feature article on our website for anyone to read. We are also inviting NACAR members who have registered for the website to submit comments, questions and opinions in response to this article. The intent is to initiate an online conversation where participants are able to see and respond to each other as well as to the article. To submit responses, be sure to login and then go to the bottom of the article and click on "Add new comment" or reply to any comment that has already been posted by going to the existing comment and adding a new one.
In the reorganization of NACAR and the NACAR Board over the past months, board members have frequently discussed questions about the meaning of association and the nature of the relationship between associates and their respective congregations. Vatican II established the original foundation for what has become the associate movement in North America fifty years ago by "shining a spotlight" on lay persons in the church and emphasizing the baptismal call of all Christians to be in mission in the world.
During the ensuing years, the answers to questions about association and associates have shifted and evolved as congregations and their associates have grappled with the practical realities of developing and implementing formal programs. There are numerous forms of association and a variety of ways in which associates and congregations establish and live out their mutual commitments. What seems to me to be core to association, however, are two interrelated notions, call and the relationship that flows from that call.
By this first notion, call, I mean that associates become associates because they are called by the charisms of their respective religious congregations to live out that charism in their own lifestyles. Just as individuals are called to vowed life in a particular congregation, so are individuals called to association in a particular congregation. In Sr. Marilyn Gottemoeller's recent article on discernment for association (Associate, Volume 17, Number 2), she clearly distinguishes between persons called to association because of various needs and connections in their lives versus those called "to a public, committed way of living following the charism of this community in the company of associates and vowed members."
Some years ago (1999), Deborah Cerullo, a member of my own congregation, School Sisters of Notre Dame, published an article in Review for Religious that was titled, "Charism and Membership: Surpassing the Institutional Limits of Religious Life." She pointed out that a common denominator in the many programs such as association, lay volunteer programs, secular institutes, and lay missioner programs directed at lay involvement in mission that developed following Vatican II seemed to be "an attraction to the charism or spirit of the community."
She suggested that this phenomenon called for "a paradigm shift in which the first thing for all who seek a formal connection with the institute" is to examine their attraction to the charism. This would be followed by a formal immersion in the charism and spirit intended, as formation for vowed life is intended, to form their hearts and minds in the spirit of the congregation and its charism. Sr. Deborah pointed out that there is a difference between the charism of religious life per se, which is a call to a particular form of life rooted in the vows; and the charisms of individual religious communities, which are not bound by the vows and certainly seem to have reached outside the formal structures of religious life in the call to association.
She then quotes an apostolic exhortation released after Vatican II, Vita consecrata, that states, "...many institutes have come to the conclusion that their charism can be shared with the laity. The laity are therefore invited to share more intensely in the spirituality and mission of these institutes. (pp.54)." This, it seems to me, is the critical notion: the charisms of religious congregations have already reached out to those who are not also called to religious life. Association is a response to the call of a particular charism in a particular person's life. Once we allow that the specific charism of a religious institute is not bounded by the structures of the distinct charism of religious life, it becomes possible to see the relationship between associates and the religious congregation in this light.
We no long need to be bound up by questions about membership (associates are clearly not members of the religious institute – both canonically and in terms of how they relate to the charism) or issues about governance (associates do not have a role in governance of the institute of which they are not members, of a religious life to which they have not been called). We can focus instead on areas that involve what is shared: charism, spirituality and mission. Associates should have roles in discussions that involve how the charism shapes the spirituality of the congregation and expresses itself in the mission and in discussions about how the work of the mission will go forward. Congregations should be having these discussions with their associates, in an atmosphere and posture of mutuality, as co-holders of the charism.
Associates do NOT have a role in discernment of questions that involve the structures, finances and staffing of the religious congregation. They DO have a role in discernment of questions that involve the charism, spirituality and mission
that they hold in common with the religious congregation. Associates are co-holders of the charism and partners in the mission as the charism expresses itself in the world. If congregations are not engaged in mutual discernment with their associates around questions about the future of their mission, they are listening with only half an ear.
Associates and religious should be asking TOGETHER: Where do we see our charism alive and active and calling people to our mission? Who is being called and what are they being called to? What are the best ways to share our charism and work together to further our mission? What are our respective roles in forming and supporting those who are called to our charism and mission? What will best enable the charism and spirit of our institute to move into the future and remain active and alive in mission?
The relationship that flows from the mutual, if distinct calls of associates and religious in each religious congregation is one of coresponsibility for the expression of the charism in mission in the world. Like any relationship, the dynamics and practices must be worked out in the day-to-day realities that ensure when we decide to share life more than superficially. And, like any relationship, the working out and the living out will be messy and sometimes complicated, difficult and sometimes painful. The blessings and graces of walking and working together do and will, I believe, far outweigh the demands and challenges.
We can look to our founders and the struggles they overcame to establish congregations that would express their charisms and missions in the world and console ourselves with the thought that we are living in the age of the refounding of religious life. Most of all, we can remember what God says to the prophet Isaiah, "so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." (Is. 55:11)