A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate examined the role of lay associates of religious institutions and their interactions with the vowed religious.

The study, entitled “Partners in Mission: The Associate-Vowed Religious Relationship in the United States,” found that age, gender and ethnicity all play a role in the determining how associates interact with religious organizations.

Associates are lay individuals who, for a variety of religious reasons, seek affiliation with a religious institution, while maintaining an independent lifestyle.

According to Executive Co-Director of the National American Conference of Associates and Religious Sister Ellen O’Connell, associates have been a presence in the Church community since the 1970s and play an important role as affiliates with religious institutes.

“It’s a support for the Church as a whole because these peoples are strengthened by the religious connection they have had with the religious community and other associates. It’s a strengthening and a mutual support,” she said.

The study attests to the growing numbers of associates within the Church. The study listed over 25,500 associates, a growth of nearly 11,000 more over the past seven years, according to O’Connell. This trend reflects the increasing desire of lay, religious individuals to take on ministerial duties.

“I think the laity are becoming much more involved in ministerial jobs in the Church and lay ministry . as [the] religious are aging there are middle-aged and younger people who can enter into some of the ministry types of work that the religious have done in the past,” O’Connell said.

Although associates do not take formal religious vows, as do the members of religious institutes, nine out of 10 respondents said they are required to undergo a formation or training period to learn about the charism, or founding grace or gift and mission of the religious institute. Ninety-six percent of associates surveyed make a formal commitment to live the mission of the religious institute and 98 percent of them report that they plan to renew that commitment.

According to O’Connell, since associates are a relatively new phenomena within the Church, younger religious tend to be more familiar with the associate movement that the older religious.

“The older religious are not as connected to associates as the younger religious are – the younger religious know a lot more about associates than older ones who have not been involved. There’s kind of a `well who are these people’ view, until people know these people are around for the long haul, and see the good work they are doing,” O’Connell said.

The study found that the relationship between associates and vowed religious varies with the age of the vowed religious. Associates also reported that they were more often encouraged to participate in prayer and social activities, than in financial and decision-making committees.

According to the study, female associates outnumber males by approximately a seven to one ratio, and many male associate groups were not founded until the 1990s.

Additionally, male and females associates often attribute their desire to become affiliated with a religious institute to different motivations. Men are more frequently attracted by a desire for community, ministry and service, whereas women are more often drawn by a desire for prayer and spirituality.

“It is a relatively new phenomenon of lay people who want to be more involved in ministry and also in the spirituality of a particular religious congregation,” O’Connell said. “They enter in the activities of the community – especially the spirituality.”

The study also found the ethnic composition of associate groups to be relatively diverse, with about 5 percent of respondent associates identifying themselves as Hispanic, and 3 percent as African American.

Established in 1996, NACAR is a non-profit organization serving associate and vowed religious members of various congregations throughout the U.S. and Canada, and fosters mutually beneficial relationships between associates and vowed religious. According to O’Connell, NACAR plans to use information from the study to spread awareness on associates.

“We felt that the Church needed to know and to hear about [associates] – some of the facts we got in the study will be helpful for people in creating formations groups and knowing that the movement is growing,” O’Connell said.

These findings are the second part of a study conducted by CARA. The first part of the study, entitled “Partners in Mission: A Profile of Associates and Religious in the United States,” conducted in 1999 and 2000, collected background information regarding who associates are, and their reasons for affiliating with a religious institute. Questionnaires were sent to all units of religious governance, with a response rate of about 75 percent.

“The main difference between this study and the earlier one was in the individuals being surveyed. In part one, we surveyed the women and men who direct or coordinate associate programs; in part two we surveyed associates and vowed religious,” Sister ary Bendyna said. Bendyna, a senior research associate at CARA, was the author of the first study and co-author of the second along with CARA research associates Mary L. Gautier and Mary Charlotte Chandler, RSCJ.

CARA is a non-profit, national organization affiliated with Georgetown University and located at Georgetown’s Main Campus, which conducts research studies in the social sciences on issues concerning the Catholic Church.

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