Recently Sr. Catherine Schwemer, a member of the Community of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ spoke to a group of La Salette Associates at the National Shrine in Attleboro. MA. She is the Executive Director of NACAR (North American Conference of Associates and Religious) which includes some 200 Associate congregations. This is the third part of her sharing on La Salettes and Associates.
Every family has its structure – necessary for accomplishing simple and sometimes more complex goals. So also with Religious Life and those called to be Associates. We will give a general description of the structures of Religious Institutes and Associates as well as their relationships within their our communities and between Vowed Religious and Associates.
What is a Canonical Community?
First of all, “canonical community” (defined by Church law) is the name for religious communities that are Church-recognized as a “religious institute.” This includes brothers, sisters, and religious priests. They take public vows and live in community. However laity and secular priests are not included in this particular group.
Concerning Religious communities (or institutes), they all have a formal Rule of Life (comprised of constitutions and capitular norms) and they follow this common rule under the leadership of a superior (or coordinator). Their “constitutions” are spiritual documents that guide members, establish the fundamental norms regarding governance, discipline, incorporation, formation and vows. Through observing their Rule of Life, they observe the mind, designs and charism (gift) of their founder.
How are Associates a Community?
In speaking about Associates, living as an Associate means that we are part of a community, not merely a member of a program or club. This community of Associates can include women, men, permanent deacons and secular priests. (Note that we do not refer to Associates as “lay associates” since our community can include clergy.)
For us as Associates, the value of relationship is key. Our commitment involves our reflecting on joining (or renewing our commitment to) community. In this process we pray (speak to and listen to God) and listen to others to see where God is leading us. Note that our relationship as Associates is not primarily linked to how many La Salettes we know!
Just as religious have their superiors, as Associates we have our directors. They are members of our community but are called to lead us as well. Our community is not “canonically established” (listed by the Church as an official body) yet we are a group who have a clearly defined structure. We have a group of advisors/board. They decide who we are, our responsibilities, to whom we are responsible, and who has the ultimate authority in our group. Their call is to serve the group well, based on the biblical notion of authority as service. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
Within the faith-understanding of Vatican II’s emphasis on the “priesthood of the faithful” and our common call to sanctity, we Associates are baptized adults called by the Holy Spirit to share with others the charism and spirituality of the founder/foundress of the particular religious institute. Our mission is to fulfill what God has called us to be in this world. It is not a coincidence we are here. We are called by God’s mysterious and wonderful design! Living as an Associate is part of our vocation, our calling as baptized Catholic Christians.
Three Elements of Our Life as Associates:
The first element of our life is community. We are a group of individuals who share life, prayer, and service bonded by the charism, ministry and spirituality of our founder/foundress.
The second element is our vocation or call. This is an initial choice to enter formation, followed by a period of discernment. The call to become an Associate involves a special way of living out our Baptismal commitment as a single person, married couple, Associate, consecrated religious or ordained minister. The invitation to this vocation comes from God.
The third and last element of our live as an Associate is subsidiarity (or a cooperative spirit). Properly understood, this principle requires each person, community or group to have autonomy which allows them the rights and responsibilities to assure balance and good functioning of the whole. This produces a maturity to be able to live and function well.
The Relationship Between Associates and Vowed Religious:
Between the Canonical Community (vowed Religious) and the Associate Community, there are commonalities and consequent peace or there can be tensions and challenges. If each group respects the other group’s boundaries, unique faith journey and call, there can be enjoyable connections. As the diagram (to the right) suggests, these two groups have much in common, while each group enjoys its own identity.
There are no shortcuts to good relationships. There must be conversation and good will between members of each group. Both need to learn, discern, speak and repeat. There is one main sin in each of these groups: for religious, it is elitism (feeling someone is above another); for Associates, it is entitlism (seeking to be accepted rather than appreciating our own call and being committed to it).
It All Comes Back to Reconciliation
If each group properly understands and lives out it own commitment and truly appreciates the identity and mission of the other, both groups can flourish. In fact, if each group grows in mutual appreciation of the other, then, as St. Paul reminds us, we will (both) become a new creation! After all, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We are all ambassadors for Christ:
“So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:18-20)
by Sr. Catherine Schwemer,
Poor Handmaid of Jesus Christ,
Executive Director of NACAR