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When Lay People and Religious Communities Connect

By Carrie McClish

I didn't see it coming.

"Would you consider becoming an Associate of the Sisters of the Holy Names?" asked Sister Carol Selak.

Sister Carol and I met at last year's 140th anniversary celebration at Sacred Heart Parish in Oakland. Many familiar faces, including hers, had returned to my longtime parish. She and I had played guitars in the parish choir for years. We took art classes together. We discussed the challenges of helping our aging parents.

Before I could get out a "What did you ask me?" Sister Carol had started the pitch.

Noting my current ministries as a lector and at my parish, Sister Carol pointed out my long connection to the Holy Names Sisters who had helped form my views of God and the world during 12 years of elementary and secondary education.

Being an Associate would build on my relationship with the Sisters, Sister Carol said. The Associates along with the Sisters gather each month for prayer and reflection, she added. No pressure. Just think about it, she said. I did.

I did some thinking, praying and research and learned that many religious communities, some since their inception, have special relationships with lay women and men who are attracted to the spirit or mission — some describe it as a charism — to a specific religious congregation or order but do not wish to make formal vows. The Holy Names Sisters as well as the Mercy Sisters, Presentation Sisters and a number of others refer to these lay people as Associates. Other terms include secular third order, affiliates, oblates and tertiaries.

In the SNJM community the charism comes from the life and work of Blessed Marie Rose Durocher and other foundresses who focused on education, promoting justice and standing with the poor and marginalized.

Whether they are called lay Associates or something else, these people are encouraged to live out their vocation in the way they live their lives — as part of a family, as a parishioner, as a co-worker.

Rosemary Brennan, an Associate of the Sisters of the Holy Names for over a dozen years, has lived her vocation in various ways. Currently she joins community faith leaders, residents, neighborhood organizations and others walking through the streets of Oakland on Friday evenings as part of a grassroots movement called Ceasefire Oakland/Lifelines to Healing. The weekly walks are an effort to stop gun violence and build a culture of peace and healing in the community.

It is "a ministry of presence" that only "requires showing up," said Brennan, noting that the walkers have developed a community among themselves while reaching out to people in the neighborhoods that they travel in. "There is no proselytizing, no handouts. Sometimes we stop in front of memorials marking where people have been shot. We greet people on the street. Frequently people driving down the street honk at us. Someone once stopped to tell us, 'It's because of you that we will get better.' That was a message of hope for us."

For Rose Carroll, becoming a third order Carmelite has given her an opportunity to love and serve God in a way that speaks to her. After leaving a different third order group that she felt was "too social" she chose the Carmelites because it complements her intense spirituality. Carroll loves to pray. Every day she schedules a pair of two-hour blocks — from 3 to 5 a.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. — for prayer, using a thick volume of Christian Prayers.

Second to Carroll's love for prayer is her love of service. She holds down ministerial duties as a lector and as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at both her "home" parish, St. Bonaventure in Concord, and at Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light. Then she somehow manages to serve as a cathedral docent. During her "down time" she takes Communion to the sick and the dying, and she distributes food to the hungry from supplies she keeps in the trunk of her car.

"Every time that I do something it is for the Lord," Carroll said. "And I forget my aches and pains."

In addition to ongoing discernment, the requirement or pre-requisites for becoming a lay Associate, secular third order or affiliate varies according to each specific religious order or congregation. Lay Carmelites, for example, must be at least 18 years of age and be practicing Catholics, according to the website of the Carmelite Order (www.ocarm.org). After an initial formation period, they are "accepted for profession."

To join the Dominican Laity, the oplaitywest.org website offers a list of guidelines that includes "a desire to search for truth through prayer and study."

Candidates for the Sisters of the Presentation Associate program go through a year of study and discernment, said Rosana Madrigal, director of communications for the San Francisco-based Sisters of the Presentation.

In addition to the research I mentioned earlier I have spent the past several months with members of the SNJM Community. At their retreat center in Santa Cruz, I met and listened to the stories of Sisters and Associates. I witnessed a candidate make a final commitment to become an Associate amidst songs of blessings and joy. I watched how the women and men prayed over an older Sister who was making a difficult transition from an independent life to assisted living. Late last year I attended a Mass in Campbell where dozens of Sisters renewed their vows and Associates renewed their promises to serve God and pray for one another.

Shortly before writing this article I was given an application form that I filled out. My sponsor, Sister Carol, and the local lay Associate coordinator, Marilyn Mackinnon, wrote recommendation letters on my behalf. As I await a response I will continue to pray and discern about this journey I am on. As Pope Francis would say, pray for me.

Carrie McClish is a staff writer for The Catholic Voice newspaper in Oakland, CA, where this article was first published.

In the photo L-R: Sister Carol Selak, Associate Marilyn Lewellyn Mackinnon, Associate Rosemary Brennan and Carrie McClish, Associate candidate.