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In the early 1970’s, following the directives of Vatican II, lay men and women sought ways to embrace and live out their baptismal commitment more consciously, and many were attracted to the charisms of different religious communities.

And a new movement – the Associate movement -- was born, one based on the mystery of call and response to the particular charism of each community’s founder.

 

A charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit given to members of the Body of Christ to further the Kingdom of God. The ‘gifts’ given to Mother Frances Schervier, and expressed today in diverse ways by the Sisters and Associates, are healing, compassion and advocacy, with a special emphasis on providing care and assistance to the poor and marginalized. Associates share the Sisters’ charism, and are called to share it with the world. However, they live out the charism within the context of their own vocations. Associates are married and single, live in their own homes and carry out their own professions in the world. They come together periodically with other Associates and with Sisters for prayer, sharing in ministry and life, and for mutual support.

In 1981, the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor (SFP) became one of the first religious congregations in the United States to begin an Associate Community for those laypeople, both Catholic and non-Catholic, interested in sharing in the Sisters’ charism in a more active way. This diverse group now includes local communities in Brazil, Italy, Senegal, and the United States. They participate in the mission of the Sisters by serving others in collaboration with the Sisters. There are different paths to becoming an SFP Associate. Often a person finds the connectionthrough a relationship with a Sister, a community of Sisters or another Associate. What follows are some thoughts from Associates themselves.

Group of Associates, Brazilian AreaGroup of Associates, Brazilian Area Associate Salomé Ribeiro Machado (Brazil) says: “I began my relationship as an Associate of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in 1991, and was one of the first members in the Goiania group. ...I wish to thank the Sisters who were present at all times, in the happy and sad moments I have faced since I met them. I especially remember with what great affection Sister Tiziana visited my family in the hospital and prayed with us during the illness of my mother.

I will never forget her care and all the comfort she gave me at that difficult time. I ask God to bless all the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor and that He may allow our Charism of Healing to continue to expand itself around the world.” Others find that their sense of personal mission matches the charism of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor.

Associate Joan Mills (USA) expresses it this way: “I share in the healing charism by bringing comfort and healing to those who are sick and homebound in my parish community. I also try to carry out the Franciscan values in my vocation as a wife and mother. Together with the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor, I try to live the Spirit of St. Francis in making our world a more loving, just and peaceful place.” Some met the Sisters and discerned a call to serve through the Sisters’ ministries.

 

Associate Barbara SchwabKlaco (USA) recalls: “My first real contact came in 1978 when my husband was admitted to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Dayton, OH with a critical injury from an automobile accident. I became acquainted with Sr. June Casterton and her wonderful work as chaplain. I began working as a Pastoral Associate at St. Elizabeth’s and was introduced to Sr. Adelaide Link at that time. While I was working on my thesis, Sr. Therese Martin was a great help … but I became an Associate because I was drawn to the simple Franciscan life... as the Sisters at St. Elizabeth’s lived it out… If I can be half as good a role model for my students as the Sisters were for me, I will have accomplished all I can.” Still others seek explicitly to enhance their spiritual life.

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Associate Thomasina Nolan (USA) reflects on this: “Seeking an intense personal relationship with Jesus through Scripture, developing a strong prayer life, and sharing the Charism with God’s creatures…all creation… helps me to best follow God’s on-going plan for me in this world.”

And Associate Samuel Espino (USA) explains further: “Given the very secular environment at work, it is refreshing to be engaged and be a part of the Franciscan Sisters. It motivates me to try my best to be a beacon of hope and goodness in the midst of a society that is increasingly becoming apathetic, selfcentered, and highly consumer oriented. You see, we march to a different drummer!”

Italian Associate, Cristina Maretto, was called by the Sisters’ charism of healing. “I became involved with the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor by chance about 23 years ago, when the Sisters opened their first community in Padua…I began by joining the youth group and then when I married my husband, Francesco, we joined the families group. Those years were very important and shaped my life deeply, helping me grow in my faith and in my relationship with God. In 2007, I joined the SFP family as an Associate. “The wounds of the world are so many that I did not know where to begin, so I started simply by walking with those who suffer. Through my job as a nurse, I face suffering every day. It is not only physical suffering but also suffering that stems from the loneliness of the elderly: their loss of autonomy, their lack of self-acceptance and their feeling of burdening others. My day is filled withacts of service to individuals ... All these are part of my job. However, the grace that stems from Mother Frances’ charism is to see before me not simply someone who needs service, but a person who needs me to share in their fragility. I try to live out the SFP charism also in my family. In the past few years, my husband Francesco and I have begun to take in foster children…This is how I came to know “Covenant House,” a community that welcomes minor children in difficult situations. I don’t do great things at “Covenant House” – I iron and cook. I drive the kids to their various sports activities and so on. What is important is that someone is there for the children - without expecting anything in return…I helpGod heal them by listening to them, giving them a smile, and my trust. Even just with my quiet presence, my patience, some acts of love, and sharing...and I know that the whole SFP family is there with me, where I serve, and so together we bring to them the healing love of Jesus.”

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In Messina, Italian Associate Sebastiano Passari shares this commitment to the Sisters’ charism. Sebastiano joined a group of volunteers who visit mentally ill patients of the Psychiatric Prison Hospital in Barcellona, Messina. The Surveillance Magistrate has given them permission to visit the patients monthly. Group members cook dinner, bring it to the prison and eat it with the patients. The patients, in turn, welcome them with joy and love - often with applause - because they will be able to spend a couple of hours outside their cells, eat dinner at tables set up for them in the hallways, and sit and talk in a family-like atmosphere. Some of them share their sad past and the reasons why they are at the hospital. “One day,” Sebastiano said, “I was sitting at the table when the guard called to the man who was talking with me. He got up and came back with a rice ball, saying that he had ordered it the day before to give to me… Our repeated and faithful presence among them, assures them that they are not forgotten, that they have friends, and that we can walk through life together holding one another by the hand.”

Associates Sebastiano and Nicola with the patients at the hospitalAssociates Sebastiano and Nicola with the patients at the hospital

Maria and Nicola Gazzano also go monthly to the Psychiatric Prison Hospital to have dinner with the inmates.

They say, “The dinner we bring is just an excuse to spend a little time with them, to chat and especially to listen to them. They need to meet people who are different from those whom they see every day.”

Maria added, “For the past two years, Nicola and I have also taken them on summer outings to the beach and to share dinner with other families who are ready and willing to welcome them. Last summer, a group of inmates, accompanied by their nurses, came to our home. It was wonderful for these people, who unfortunately live in inhumane conditions, to have an opportunity to experience a real family, with children and grandchildren. As we said goodbye, they shared how happy they were for having spent those hours with us. Such experiences also have enriched us tremendously because they open our eyes to a reality with which we are not familiar and allow us to become close and learn to love, these truly ‘special’ individuals.”

Wherever they are located, Associate programs provide a space -- and support -- for laity who would like to be more involved, who are seeking a deeper spiritual life and a commitment to the mission of the Church in the world. The Spirit has used many vessels in the past two millennia. With fewer religious and clergy, the role of the laity could grow and be fruitful in a new way in a new age. It is possible that laypeople, many of whom have been nurtured and supported in Associate programs, will assume a larger role in carrying on the work of the Church in the future.