Associations of the faithful

Pope Francis called them "missionaries of God's love and tenderness." Confraternities - groups of Catholic laity bound together by faith - have existed since the early days of the church. Over the years these groups, under ecclesiastical authority, have worked to promote acts of piety and charity.

According to Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices, "confraternity" is the common name used to describe these groups, but they include sodalities, pious unions, leagues, third orders, secular orders and guilds.

These groups had their origins in the early church when lay people came together to care for the sick and to bury the dead. In the 15th and 16th centuries, confraternities in Rome assisted pilgrims visiting the city.

Vatican II gave new life to lay associations, and "Lumen Gentium," promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1964, reiterated the importance of the lay apostolate to the church's mission.

"Upon all the laity, therefore, rests the noble duty of working to extend the divine plan of salvation to all men of each epoch and in every land. Consequently, may every opportunity be given them so that, according to their abilities and the needs of the times, they may zealously participate in the saving work of the church," reads "Lumen Gentium."

The role of the laity is further clarified by another Vatican II document, "Apostolicam Actuositatem," that stated, "The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ's mystical body through baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself."

These groups are codified in Canons 298-326 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and are technically called "associations of the faithful."

Canon law defines two types of associations - private and public.

Private associations exist by agreement between members. The local church authority may or may not recognize the private association. For an association to be officially recognized as a private association of the faithful it must submit its statutes for review by a competent church authority. According to canon law, the competent church authority is the Holy See for international associations and the local bishops' conference for national groups.

The Catholic Association of Music is an example of a private association.

A public association is one created by a competent church authority. Examples include the Arlington Diocese's Youth Apostles (YA) Institute and the Women's Apostolate to Youth (WAY) and the Legion of Mary.

Mary Flanagan, president of the Arlington Regia, said that there is a reason people join associations like the Legion of Mary.

"When people join together, it fulfills a human and spiritual need."

As part of the celebration of the Year of Faith, in his May 5 homily on the Day of Confraternities and Popular Piety, Pope Francis, said, "Down the centuries, confraternities have been crucibles of holiness for countless people who have lived in utter simplicity an intense relationship with the Lord. Advance with determination along the path of holiness; do not rest content with a mediocre Christian life, but let your affiliation serve as a stimulus, above all for you yourselves, to an ever greater love of Jesus Christ."

Associations of the faithful are playing an important role in the new evangelization efforts of the church. Ecclesial movements like the Catholic Charismatic Movement in the Arlington Diocese are a new phenomenon.

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops' Richard McCord, in an essay entitled, "Ecclesial Movements as Agents of a New Evangelization," writes, "Ecclesial movements is a collective term for many volunteer groups and associations within the church, mostly in the 20th century."

McCord said that ecclesial movements are an evolution of the traditional groups like confraternities that have arisen throughout the history of the church and can be useful in the spread of the new evangelization.

According to the "International Associations of the Faithful Directory," published by the Pontifical Society for the Laity, the numbers of lay associations has increased since Vatican II. Their growth, as in the past, is directly related to a particular need of the church.

The directory said that these associations, whether the new ecclesial movements or the more traditional confraternities and sodalities, continue to give the church "a vitality that is God's gift."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013