Consociate programs of religious orders, also known as associate programs, are becoming quite commonplace throughout the world. Several years ago, my mother, for instance, participated in the process of becoming an associate of the Sisters of Mercy through their congregation in Gunnedah, Australia.
Following are thoughts on the phenomenon of associate/consociate programs by Joan Chittister, OSB:
Associate pograms . . . embody a bold, bold theology. They demonstrate in a period of crippling clericalism and a closed esslesiology, that the charisms of Jesus which the church holds in trust, those personifications in us of the ongoing spirit of Jesus - the spirit of mercy, the spirit of contemplation, the spirit of love, the spirit of truth, the spirit of prophecy, the spirit of vision and courage and crucifixion for justice’s sake; all the gifts of which Paul speaks, are not for the keeping by a few. There are not some of us who are holy and some of us not! There are not some of us who embody the gifts of the spirit and some of us who do not. There are not some of us who are gift to the church and some of us who are not. . . .
No one and nothing encapsulates the whole life of Jesus. No one embodies all the gifts of Jesus at one time: Only Jesus is Jesus. But the gifts of the life of Jesus, we’re told in 1 Corinthians, remain, nevertheless, because the spirit gives them now to us as carriers of these religious traditions and also to [each one of us] as bearers of them anew.
As a result, some of us have one gift and some of us have another gift, and together we have a gift that is greater than either of us, and greater than both of us separately and alone. And together we make it visible in new ways. And together we make it vocal again in the new language of a new time. And therein lies the glory of the associate programs that are springing up in the church again from religious order to religious order, from coast to coast, from continent to continent, everywhere.
It is the associate programs of religious orders that are becoming tentacles of the spirit in the nucleus of the world, a veritable critical mass of new life and new hope and new expressions of Jesus alive in us. . . .
Associate programs model a whole church, a church that is wholly ministering, wholly open, wholly renewed in the very heart of a church become, over time, too male, too clerical, too distant from the people of God. . . .
Associate programs demonstrate what Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ – with its all-male, apostolic, privatized version of Jesus’ eucharistic theology – did not, but which Bohdan Piasecki’s new print of men, women, and children eating together at the feast makes plain: the table to which Jesus calls us is a table of men and women, of apostles and disciples, of young and old, all sharing the same meal, all called to the same cup, and all of them participants in the theological development of the early Christian community. They remind us of the circle of Jesus that takes unlike people in, but which, over the centuries, became a pious pyramid designed to keep most people down and out.
Associate programs dispel the image of exclusivity that makes spirituality the purview of a private club of cognoscenti, of special people – people specifically privileged, specifically gendered, supposedly more knowledgeable, specially recognized, specifically sexual – who define its limits and confine its rewards to themselves.
Finally, associate programs enable lay members and religious congregations to strengthen the gifts of the other and to learn from the gifts of the other at the same time. Associates bring to a congregation the gift of immersion in another whole dimension of life – with all its insights, all its understandings, all its muddy, complex complications and its cry for our awareness, our involvement, our voice. Religious bring to associates the lived experience of a long-standing spiritual tradition that has withstood the test of time over centuries of challenge, stabilized whole layers of people in the midst of grave dangers, and given direction to whole bodies of seekers at times of great darkness.