Who's following orders?
In a classroom at Mt. St. Vincent's College in the Bronx, New York, Professor Rob Jacklowsky guides his class of sophomore and junior English majors through the intricacies of John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Although this poem from the Romantic age of English literature may seem far removed from the day-to-day concerns of this ethnically diverse group of college students, Jacklowsky does everything but turn cartwheels to bring the piece alive for his students.
In Chicago, Jim Martin takes a break from poring over the complexities of tax returns at the Chicago regional office of the IRS for a moment of prayer and quiet reflection on an otherwise hectic day.
Out in suburban LaGrange Park, Illinois his wife, Pat, stops by the chapel of Nazareth Academy on her lunch hour. Pat, who is employed as assistant director of development for the coed Catholic high school, finds the brief stopover in the chapel "recharges her spiritual batteries" and gives her renewed energy for the rest of the workday.
Meanwhile, out on the jam-packed freeway that winds around San Jose, California, Kathy Herrington finds her blood pressure rising during her ten-mile morning commute. However, instead of muttering a few choice words as yet another driver cuts in front of her, Herrington takes a deep breath and says a little prayer for the errant driver. "The way people drive out here used to make me crazy," Herrington explains. "But not anymore. Now I just go with the flow."
So what do an East Coast college professor, a Midwestern couple, and a West Coast commuter have in common? All are associates-lay people formally affiliated with religious orders.
The associate process usually begins with a formation period of six months to a year in which the associate candidate is instructed in the history, traditions, ministries, and, most important, the charism of that particular religious congregation.
The charism is an intangible quality that is generally described as the special gifts, talents, or virtues that characterize a religious congregation. The charism of the Benedictines, for example, revolves around the virtues of hospitality and stability. The charism of the Dominicans is scholarship and a gift for preaching and teaching. And the charism of the Franciscans is joy in God's creation and a special identification with the poor. It is the responsibility of the religious congregation to use their charism for the benefit of the larger Christian community.
At the end of the formation period, the associate candidates participate in a "commitment ceremony" at the motherhouse or provincial house. The associates' commitments, which usually last one to three years, generally include a promise to meet with the other associates on a regular basis for prayer and faith-sharing and to try to bring the charism of the religious community into the associates' homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
A profile of the typical associate is that of a white, middle-class woman with some college education, who is between the ages of 45 and 60. However, a panoramic view of associates in the United States reveals that they come in a wide range of ages, occupations, and ethnic and educational backgrounds, as well as both genders. Most associates are Roman Catholic, but an increasing number of them are members of other Christian denominations, and even a few are non-Christians.
Let's look at the numbers
The growth of lay association with religious orders is fed by two current trends, according to Jean Sonnenberg, coordinator of the North American Conference of Religious and Associates and editor of the quarterly journal, The Associate.
First, Sonnenberg says there is a spiritual hunger among the laity that calls for "new and deeper expressions of lay spirituality." The associate movement is simply the latest development in the "explosive growth" of programs directed toward lay spirituality, including Bible-study classes, Marriage Encounter, and parish-based faith groups, such as small faith communities.
Second, in light of the continuing decline in the number of vocations to religious life, many congregations have embraced the associate movement as a way of maintaining a presence within the larger Christian community.
Sister Ellen O'Connell, director of associates for the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul of New York, says that associates help "define who we are as Sisters of Charity. Our associates assist us in our mission and bring our charism into the larger world."
There is another, perhaps less obvious benefit for religious communities. Associates, simply by the fact that they base their spiritual development on the example and virtues of a religious community, indirectly pay a tremendous compliment to that religious community. As one nun says "The associates seem to value and see goodness in who we are (as religious) more than we see in ourselves."
While the number of vowed religious has declined since the late 1960s, the number of associates has soared dramatically. A survey conducted by Sister Rosemary Jeffries, R.S.M. in 1988 found that 357 women's orders and 32 men's orders in the United States had associate programs, with a total of about 6,000 male and female associates nationwide.
A 1994 survey of 381 communities of religious women conducted by Franciscan Sisters Louise Hembrecht and Paula Rae Rose found 14,500 associates affiliated with 223 women's religious communities. (Men's orders were not included in the Hembrecht-Rose study). Although the survey samples of the 1988 and 1994 studies were not identical, it appears that the number of associates in the United States increased by more than 250 percent in just six years.
For many people, an associate relationship can provide at least a partial solution to their spiritual quest.
"When you find a few kindred spirits," says Sonnenberg, "and you come together with them for prayer, faith-sharing, and, in some cases, assisting in ministry, you no longer feel alone on your spiritual journey. That is what becoming an associate is all about."
One aspect of being an associate that differs from becoming a member of a religious order is the "gender mixing" of associate programs. Although most men and women choose to affiliate with religious orders of their own gender, it is not unheard of for a man to associate himself with a women's religious order, or a woman to affiliate with a men's order.
The Congregation of Christian Brothers, formerly referred to as the Irish Christian Brothers, are a teaching order with about 2,000 vowed members worldwide, including about 350 brothers in the United States. Brother Jerry McCarthy, F.S.C., coordinator of associates for the Christian Brothers' Eastern Province, says his order currently has about 40 associates in five states on the East Coast, with another 30 associates in its Peru mission. And Christian Brother associates "are split right down the middle-50 percent are men and 50 percent are women."
Why would a woman want to become an associate of a men's religious order and vice versa? Because, McCarthy says, "They relate to the charism of the order, they believe in the mission and ministries of the order, and, most important, it just feels right for them."
Values by association
More than one person has given Rob Jacklowsky a quizzical look upon learning that not only is he a lay associate but an associate of a women's religious order.
Jacklowsky says that the mystery of his choosing to affiliate with a women's order evaporates "once people get to know the Sisters of Charity."
The Sisters of Charity of New York are spiritual descendants of both Saint Vincent de Paul of France, who believed in working directly with the poor, and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, who founded the Catholic school system in the United States.
Given the history of the order, it is not surprising that Jacklowsky feels right at home. As a professor at Mt. St. Vincent's College, which is run by the Sisters of Charity, Jacklowsky has a chance to function as teacher, friend, and mentor to students from a wide range of ethnic, economic, and social backgrounds among the 1,200-person student body.
The idea of becoming an associate was first suggested to Jacklowsky by Sister Anne Denise Brennan, S.C., a colleague of Jacklowsky's in the English department. Jacklowsky had long admired the personal interest Brennan seemed to take in the progress of each of her students.
"I consider her a mentor and a role model. She seems energized by her interaction with the students. She never comes across as bored or irritated with her teaching responsibilities. That's the spirit that I want to bring to my classroom, too," Jacklowsky explains.
In the fall of 1995 Jacklowsky began the formation process required of those who want to become associates. Jacklowsky read about the history, traditions, and charism of the order and met periodically with O'Connell to discuss and reflect on what he was learning.
On Dec. 8, 1996, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Jacklowsky went up to the motherhouse with half a dozen other associate candidates to make a one-year commitment to the Sisters of Charity. If all goes well, Jacklowsky anticipates renewing that commitment for a three-year period this Dec. 8.
Jacklowsky says becoming an associate is "one of the best things I've ever done. I've learned that living out the gospel values is not some wacky, radical idea, but a lifestyle that is being lived out on a daily basis by real, flesh-and-blood people. And some of the best of them are Sisters of Charity."
Ready for a change
In LaGrange Park, Illinois, about 15 miles from the hustle and bustle of downtown Chicago, six married couples and two nuns gather in Jim and Patricia Martin's living room for prayer, scripture reading, and faith-sharing.
The group gets together five or six times a year as part of the associate program of the Sisters of St. Joseph of LaGrange.
This particular associate group differs from some other C.S.J. (Congregation of St. Joseph) associate groups in that it consists entirely of married couples. Other C.S.J. associate groups, or "clusters" as they are usually called by their members, are exclusively female and consist primarily of single, widowed, or divorced women. There is one group of recent graduates of Nazareth Academy. There is even one group that consists solely of former members of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
"We didn't necessarily plan it that way," says Sister Jackie Schmitz, C.S.J., principal of Nazareth Academy and director of the associate program for the Sisters of St. Joseph. "I guess people just naturally gravitate to others with similar backgrounds and interests."
Although the lay membership of the groups may vary, all of the groups have one thing in common-they include at least one Sister of St. Joseph.
"That's the whole idea, isn't it?" associate member Jim Martin asks rhetorically. "We want to learn from them, we want to absorb their values, we want to make their charism a part of our lives. In short, we want to associate with them, while still living out our lives as laypeople."
The Sisters of St. Joseph of LaGrange are part of the larger extended family of Sisters of St. Joseph, which originated in France in the1650s as an active rather than a contemplative order. The first sisters came to the United States in 1836, and to the Chicago area in 1899, where they worked primarily as teachers.
Since Vatican II, the sisters have diversified into a number of different ministries, including outreach programs through a variety of social-service ministries. However, the Sisters of St. Joseph still own and operate their flagship school, Nazareth Academy.
It is the high school connection that formed the basis of the Martins' associate involvement. All three of the Martin children are current or former Nazareth students.
In early 1995 Pat and Jim were asked by the sisters to resurrect the associate program, which had been created in the 1970s but by the1990s had petered out.
"The sisters needed to know if there was any real interest out there for this kind of program," Pat says. In reactivating the program, "There was a mutual understanding that the associate program would have to be beneficial to both sides (the sisters and the associates) if it were to succeed."
Pat and Jim talked to a number of other couples, most of whom had children attending Nazareth Academy, and determined that "there was a definite interest in getting the associate program going again."
Today there are half a dozen C.S.J. associate groups meeting in the Chicago area. There is also a board of associates and religious that plans two or three combined group events each year. One of these events is the annual commitment ceremony on the weekend closest to the Feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, at which time both the associates and the religious renew their promises or vows.
Asked to reflect on her two years as an associate, Pat says, "Getting to know people, both sisters and the other couples, with whom you share so many values, has been wonderful." And because Jim and Pat participate as a couple, "Being an associate has strengthened our marriage. It's something we do together something we both believe in."
You can go home again
Kathy Herrington was not sure why she felt that something was missing in her life. On the surface it seemed that she was very blessed with a loving husband, three sons, and a beautiful home in the sun-kissed state of California.
Nevertheless, she felt a void. At first she didn't think it had anything to do with her spiritual life.
"I had been going to church every Sunday and teaching CCD. But I felt like I was just going through the motions," Herrington says. "One day just seemed to flow into the next, without much thought of God.
"I wanted my faith to be meaningful. I wanted it to affect the way I live my life. I was definitely ready for a change."
There had been a time in her life when God was the heart, soul, and essence of Herrington's existence. In 1958, as a 17-year-old high school senior, she decided to seek entrance to the congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (S.N.J.M.), the same nuns who had taught her in high school.
Even in 1958, the decision to enter the convent was the exception rather than the rule. Still, it wasn't greeted with gasps of amazement or cries of dismay, as might be the reaction of most teenagers and their parents today.
"There were 25 postulants (first-year religious) the year that I entered the convent," Herrington says. "And, believe it or not, the entrance classes that followed us in 1959 and 1960 were even larger." Those were banner years for religious life.
Herrington was in the convent from 1958 through the end of her novitiate in1960. She left, she says, not because she disliked religious life but for health reasons.
So Herrington left the convent, finished her education, and became a teacher. She married Bill Herrington in 1966 and they raised three sons.
"Unlike many who have left religious life," says Herrington, "I bear no hard feelings toward the sisters. In fact, I consider that period some of the best years of my life."
After reminiscing at a high school reunion, one nun said to her, "If you miss it so much, why don't you become an associate?"
Shortly after the reunion Herrington looked into the order's associate program and decided that she did, indeed, want to reaffiliate with her old order.
Herrington officially became an associate in 1989. She joined a group that has now grown to about 400 in the United States and Canada, including 80 associates in California. Since 1991 she has served on the associates' board of directors.
Herrington says, "Being an associate has empowered me. I have a serenity and confidence that I never had before. I am willing to take on tasks that previously would have seemed overwhelming," such as helping to form the Northern California chapter of the North American Conference of Associates and Religious. "I guess you could say that being an associate has truly helped me become the woman I was meant to be."