National Catholic Register


Lay Associate Movement Answers Call to Evangelize

BY Paul Witte

May 31-June 6, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/31/98 at 1:00 AM


COVINGTON, Ky. — The North American Conference of Associates and Religious (NACAR) met for the second time as an organization May 1-3 with 265 consecrated religious and lay associates from 33 states and two Canadian provinces in attendance. While NACAR completed only its first calendar year in December 1997, the “associate movement” has been developing quietly for many years.

The most recent available data indicates there are 14,500 associates in the United States (1995) and 4,300 in Canada (1997).

According to Sister Ellen Rose O'Connell SC, the group's co-director, associates have been meeting regularly for some time; the first associate group met in 1976.

“The call of Vatican II to evangelize is bearing fruit today,” said Sister O'Connell in reference to the associate movement.

Indeed, the movement is rooted in the teaching of Vatican II about the role of the layperson in the world, and NACAR conferences and workshops build upon the pastoral directions set forth in the Council documents.

NACAR exists to promote the coming together of religious congregations and lay associates, Sister O'Connell explained.

“It is the layperson's coming in touch with the mission and charisms of the congregations and how they live out the mission of Jesus in the world. Many associates are in ministry already. They feel they are alone — especially women who are moving into ministerial roles,” she said. “Many associates are looking for a deeper spirituality. Sometimes it is offered in the parishes, but more often it is not. So by taking part in the spiritual development within a congregation — by taking part in the courses and workshops — they connect.”

Some of the religious congregations that make up the membership of NACAR are like Sister O'Connell's own congregation, the Sisters of Charity, an order of some 550 sisters whose ministry encompasses education, social work, and hospital ministry. The Sisters of Charity in New York have 51 associates. Others are far smaller, though. For example, NACAR's lay co-director, Jean Sonnenberg, is associated with the Sisters of Bon Secours, a congregation of 46 sisters with 86 associates, all clustered around the congregation's health-care centers.

Sonnenberg is a married women who has studied and written on topics of spirituality. She and Sister O'Connell became co-directors of NACAR when it developed out of national gatherings that had been occurring each year since the late 1980s at the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville, Md. When participants decided it was time to move into another phase of development, the Center became the North American headquarters for the Conference. There are now some 80 religious groups in membership, with the number steadily increasing.

Shortly after its formation, a board of directors was formed, composed of persons from associate groups, including: Greg Davidson, Incarnate Word associate director (Grapevine, Texas); Sister Grace Mannion RSM, director, Extended Mercy (West Hartford, Conn.); Ruby Randal, associate of the Oblate Sisters (Syracuse, N.Y.); and Brother John Jerry McCarthy CFC, director, Associates of Edmund Rice (New Rochelle, N.Y.).

The purposes of NACAR are delineated in their brochure: (1) networking and mutual support for associates and religious in the associate movement; (2) identifying and exploring issues relevant to the associate-religious relationship; (3) serving as a clearinghouse for the sharing of resource and talents, especially for associate spiritual growth; (4) visioning for the future of associate-religious relationship as the People of God; and (5) assisting religious congregations in policy and guideline development for their associate relationship.

NACAR publishes a quarterly journal, The Associate; offers workshops for associates and religious in leadership in the movement; and coordinates a yearly conference of U.S. and Canadian associates. The Conference office facilitates networking and information sharing of associates and religious. Membership dues are only $35 a year, but Sister O'Connell notes that the organization has had “a very good track record” of congregations offering support through mini-grants of $1,000. The success of the conference is of like benefit to religious communities who are looking for help in developing associate groups.

“Mission and charism is the basis of what it means to become an associate,” said Sister O'Connell. “It is a call — a call people are experiencing to a deeper level of commitment around the mission of Jesus.”

Audrey Ann Bagnowski is a licensed professional counselor from the Detroit suburb of Rockwood, Mich. A state employee who works with the disabled, she is also an associate of the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, Ohio. Bagnowski said that, in a materialist age and in a disconnected society, she is able to embrace and seek guidance from a Franciscan spirituality. She said of her relationship with the Sisters of St. Francis: “They care about me. Society is so alienated in its race for material things — in its race not to know each other. The associate movement allows me to connect.”

Bagnowski also speaks of a call: “I am called to go wherever God directs,” she said. “God calls me to go across mental, emotional, financial, and physical boundaries, to meet people where people are.”

“Connectedness” is important in the associate movement. Bagnowski said she finds a meaningful connection with the Franciscan sisters and feels enriched by their spirituality. Further, she enjoys a relationship with other associates who meet formally four times a year and have a yearly retreat. She first became an associate in 1986. After an initial lapse, she rejoined the movement in 1995, going through an application process to determine where she was spiritually and her motivations for wanting to be an associate. The Sisters of St. Francis were the logical congregation to connect with because she had known them since she was a little girl.

According to Sister O'Connell, “The commitment of an associate can be for a period of time; it does not have to be forever. The ‘connectedness’ with the congregation is what is important.”

The associates of the Sisters of Charity have an orientation period of one year to allow newcomers to become familiar with the mission and charism of the order, and sense of social justice needed to work with the poor. Other groups operate differently. The specific process is not important, conference directors claim. The affiliation of “connectedness” the associates experience differs with the local orders.

Bagnowski has realized the benefits of being an associate. In her work with disabled persons, and with the recent deaths of her parents, she notes that the support system individuals need is dwindling.

While associate groups provide community, spirituality, and ministry for lay associates, religious congregations gain from the relationships as well. For congregations experiencing a decline in their numbers it may mean the carrying on of their ministry and charism. Consecrated religious are also greatly encouraged and built up by the lay associates.

“Seeing younger people move into works in the inner city and opting for that kind of life is inspiring.... The sense of sharing our heritage is a strong element,” said Sister O'Connell, admitting that the religious congregations are not alone on the giving end. “Laypeople come to the associates [for] a spiritual life. They come to share ... what they have, and we share with them.”

Paul Witte writes from Ypsilanti, Michigan.