Lay members are central to the life and mission of the Spiritan community. They are also referred to as Sodales, the Latin term meaning "associates" which originates with the Congregation's founders. From the start, we have sought to be one: one mission, one community.
Current lay Spiritan missionaries, educators, and social workers have as their apostolic ancestors lay individuals who served as cooks, tailors, and health care workers with des Places in the early 1700s. They were followed by missionaries to the Congo as well as married lay associates at the turn of the twentieth century.
Starting with "Sodales": Des Places' Foundations
Soon after opening his seminary community in 1703, des Places recruited students to help in his work. He also admitted lay sodales or associates who worked as cooks, tailors, and shoemakers for the theological school. Early laity attended Mass daily, participated in prayers and spiritual reading with the larger community. Called "brothers," they lived a life of evangelical poverty that continued up until the Revolution in 1792.
Moving into mission
The first lay missionary associates were active in Guyane during the 1770s. They were also vital to the last effort of the 18th century to evangelize the area of Laongo, north of the Congo River. Lay volunteers also participated in the first expedition to the Two Guineas.
Libermann's lay legacy: Coming to terms
Although a priest himself, Libermann saw more commonality than difference among the Church's faithful laborers intent on building God's Kingdom. He saw no inherent conflict between the mission of the clergy and the the lay workers who were also impelled by God to activate their own mission. According to Fr. Henry Koren, Congregation historian, for Libermann "the two do not have a mission of their own in opposition to each other ... but share in a common mission: both categories carry out the mission of God's people in accordance with their situation in the Church."
Formalizing the lay life
There were always a "small number of committed laity" who were not formally Brothers of the Congregation. Libermann identified these individuals as agrégés rather than "associates." Affiliate memberships were also developed under Libermann's guidance.
The Constitutions of 1875 have a specific section (no. 25, pp. 83 ff.) on aggregation and affiliation. Affiliation was accorded to both individuals and groups. Aggregation was divided among three spiritual paths, all of which were lived in community.
- Clerical and brother agrégés could wear the congregational habit, except for the blue rabat which indicated full profession.
- The lay agrégés, while living in community, dressed in secular clothing and did not participate fully in the liturgical life.
- All participated in the spiritual and material benefits of community life.
Extending the family -- married associates admitted
In 1895, however the paradigm shifted. The General Council, at the request of Bishop Le Roy, admitted married men as agrégés. A rule was drawn up for these first married associates which specified a one year probationary period, sharing in the spiritual and material benefits, and the rights and duties of associate membership and community life. The rule also required that the married man obtain his wife's permission to become an associate. These associates donned a cross around their necks rather than taking the religious habit.
The Twentieth Century: Deepening the Vision
Following directives from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) religious orders and dioceses began to make more room for committed lay people in ministry leadership. The Spiritans convened a General Chapter in Rome in 1968 to formally address its decisions, and:
- Affirmed its commitment to missionary apostolate among peoples whose needs were the greatest.
- Mandated that local communities seek to train and help those who wished to serve in missionary works, allowing for the possibility that some may want to live and work with members of the Congregation.
Among the creative responses throughout the Congregation was the Trans-Canadian Province's founding of Volunteers in International Christian Service (VICS) in 1971. VICS was primarily understood as an ecumenical volunteer service under Spiritan leadership focused on placing volunteers in technical and educational works in third world countries. The following year the Spanish Province's lay mission initiative was established enabling lay people to work with Spiritans in Angola, Cameroon, Tanzania, Paraguay, and Brazil.
Former USA East Province
During the 1970s, lay people who were relatives or close friends of the Spiritan missionaries in East Africa came to join them in their work, mostly as teachers. This initiative became formalized in the early 1980s when the U.S. East Province approved guidelines for a program of recruiting, preparing, and placing these lay Spiritans or volunteers.
In 1989 Ann Marie and John Hansen, former lay missionaries with the Spiritans in Tanzania, moved to Pittsburgh to become the lay directors of the lay Spiritan group. They provided hospitality and orientation to several dozen lay missionaries to prepare them for work in Africa, usually a three to six year span. The U.S. Province is working to provide opportunities to join the Province as lay members in the U.S.
Former USA West Province
The former Western Province started a community based on a core group of lay men and women who were interested in applying Spiritan spirituality to their daily lives and living in practical union with God wherever the Spirit led them. This model was started by Fr. Michael White, the West Coast's provincial at the time, and Peter and Judy Stubbs and Superior General Fr. Timmermans.
On the Horizon
As both professed and lay Spiritans continue to find new ways of sharing community and ministry with one another, one of the greatest challenges facing them is the continued growth of Spiritan institutions in the midst of a declining priesthood. Today's lay Spiritans must seek creative and prophetic ways to continue the Order's unique work with lay followers as co-laborers and leaders.