Paula Jerard prays regularly with the Felician Sisters at their Chicago motherhouse, joins them at their retreats, kneels beside them during the daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and sings in their choir at liturgies. Jerard, who 24 years ago was a Felician postulant for nearly a year, even makes an annual formal commitment of prayer and service to carry out the Felician mission.

Jerard lives apart from the Felicians and works full-time for an air-freight company. She is a lay associate, a person who affiliates with a women's religious order by making a commitment to its charism.

Some lay associates work full-time at hospitals or other institutions run by a religious order; some volunteer at such facilities. Others maintain jobs in the business world or raise families, while devoting weekends, evenings, or even just spare moments during the day to prayer or service.

The lay associates are not an answer to the vocation crisis. Their lives often are full with additional roles such as mother, wife, or wage-earner, and they do not wish to live in community, take vows, or live as regulated a life as women religious do.

“I'm looking for a deeper, stronger, more personal relationship with God,” says Jerard. “Being acquainted with the sisters helps me experience his goodness.”

Most associates knew a religious, were taught by them, or had worked in a parish and affiliated with an order through a personal invitation. A typical associate is a white woman older than 30, though men are associates, too.

Associates are similar to secular Franciscans and other third order members, but crucial differences exist. Associates align themselves with religious congregations. They interact quite often with sisters, whereas priest-directors serve as the primary contacts with third orders. Associates prefer the more flexible relationship afforded them, compared to those found in third orders.

Most orders require their associates to undergo a one year candidacy. They often study the history and mission of the order before making a written oneyear commitment. Associates become part of two cultures: the religious order and the world of lay associates. They not only spend time and pray with sisters, but also hold their own retreats and workshops.

Some orders have a handful of associates while others have hundreds. The Felicians of the Chicago province, who began an associates program six years ago, have 24 associates and five candidates, while another 103 lay people, limited by age or frailty, are prayer associates.

Felician associates carry out their commitment in a variety of ways. One man, a barber, cuts hair at a home for children who are disabled. An older woman, who lives in a high-crime neighborhood, marches in anti-gang rallies and represents her neighborhood at city meetings. Several are active in their parishes.

What the associates share is a conscious commitment to their spirituality. Julia Rajtar of Milwaukee, a Felician associate, is director of pastoral care at a Felician hospital. Her job there is to help employees understand the mission of the order.

“Being an associate only supports me [in my faith] to be that kind of support for others,” she says.

Rajtar, who moved to Milwaukee from St. Paul, once considered becoming a Felician. She still considers them “my family locally,” but believes she can accomplish more as a lay person.

“I can effect more change without being restricted by the rules and regulations” of the community, she says.

Like other Felician associates, Rajtar wears a small pin signifying her special commitment, and those at the hospital respond to her as someone especially committed to her faith.

“They stop me and ask me to pray for them,” she says. “That didn't happen initially. They would ask a sister.”

Yet the growth of the associate movement has created some concerns. Critics say the line between the religious and laity is being blurred. It's fine, they say, for laity to reinvigorate their spiritual life but the associate movement compromises the identity of religious life. The movement seems to offer an alternative to religious life at the very time when religious orders need to redouble recruitment efforts.

Rajtar, for one, is not unsettled by these larger issues.

“The Felicians have a saying: ‘The path is made by walking,’” she says. “I'm not sure where we are headed, but it's going to be very exciting.” Jay Copp writes from Chicago.