Great variety in associate religious life provides many options
Have a question about what it means to become an associate of a religious institute? The answer is probably: "It depends."
Being an associate means to make a public commitment to the mission of a religious institute. This allows associates to "learn and live the spirituality of certain religious institutes while following their own vocation in the world," New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law says.
But almost everything beyond that is up to the individual institute, including how much and what type of formation takes place before the commitment, how long that commitment lasts, and whether it can be renewed. Most do not have geographic restrictions, but — again, depending on the institute — there may be requirements to attend certain activities. Most associate programs are self-supporting, so there could be fundraising or donations involved, as well.
Some institutes do not even use the word "associates": There are also oblates, third-order seculars and many other names for the different types of association. The Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, for example, has coassociates, consociates, Ohana, and the Familia de San Jose.
How to become an associate is just as dependent on the institution.
The easiest way to find an institute that might meet your needs, said Conni Dubick, president of the North American Conference of Associates and Religious (NACAR) board of directors, is to use the congregational membership list on the NACAR website. The list shows each religious institute that is a member of NACAR with a short description of each and a link to their websites.
In the future, however, NACAR will have a much easier tool, Dubick said. The group is working on an online tool that will replace browsing, allowing would-be associates to search institutes by characteristics and charisms, returning a list of congregations that match their needs.
Almost all institutes that have associate programs allow both men and women to join, a 2000 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed, and almost all allow both single and married people. Two-thirds allow diocesan priests and permanent deacons, and nearly half allow vowed religious to join, the study said.
Sixty percent allow non-Catholics to be associates, and 18 percent allow non-Christians.