She is 24 years old, a college graduate, youthful yet mature, strong-minded, emotionally healthy and in love with Christ and his Church. She could be the ideal candidate for religious life, except for one thing: several thousand dollars in school loans, a debt that by canon law must be resolved before entrance into a community.
It turns out that helping more men and women to hear and heed God's call is not the only challenge in increasing vocations. College debt has become a stubborn problem for many potential candidates for religious life, according to several vocations directors.
“We do run into it I guess more frequently now than before,” says Sister Megan Marie Thibodeau, vocations director for the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity. “We're getting more women who have graduate degree, or even debt from undergraduate programs.”
Educational debts can range from a couple thousand dollars to tens of thousands, for those with advanced degrees or from private universities. While some kinds of debt can carry a stigma of irresponsibility, school debt — unlike consumer debt — is difficult to avoid.
“It's really hard today for people to graduate from college without some kind of debt,” says Sister Catherine Marie, vocations director of the Nashville Dominicans. “It used to be the case, but not any more.”
Candidates are generally quite willing to work to pay their debts, which they took on in good faith, vocations directors agree. But others have pointed out that a number of things can happen before a woman has paid her own debt that might prevent her from being able to enter at all.
She may meet a wonderful man and decide on marriage. She may become too acclimated to the go-go pace and aggressive leadership required in her workplace to adapt easily to a community or to find the time to develop her interior life.
Or, during the years — maybe eight to 10 years — it takes to pay off her debt, she may simply get too old to be accepted. While a man can become a priest at even a late age, most religious communities of men and women have an age cap of 30 to 35, after which it can be difficult for a person to be formed into a community member, docile under the authority of a superior.
What's a would-be sister saddled with debt to do?
An informal survey done for Horizon, the quarterly journal for the National Religious Vocations Conference, found a variety of policies by religious communities. Some are able to help pay educational debts with the understanding that the candidate would repay the congregation if she leaves. Some can offer a postulant an interest-free loan to take care of her school debts, also repayable if she leaves.
Other communities lack the means to assist the candidate in any way and instead encourage her to make personal requests of friends and family. Individuals are often happy to help a candidate enter, seeing in their contribution a direct support of religious vocations, like the old saying about the missions: They give who go, they go who give.
Sister Megan Marie says her community, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, encourages candidates to let friends and family members know there is a risk that the candidate may not stay.
“Our Lord is not outdone in generosity, and he's provided for the women,” she says. “People have been very generous in their response. The women's desire and motivation is pure; they're not trying to get their loans paid off.”
She herself had $5,000 in college loans when she first inquired with her community. “My college loan was kind of my trump card with the Lord,” she explains. “After sending a letter of inquiry, she spoke with the sisters and was told she would have to pay the debt before entering. The next day the phone rang, and a good friend of mine offered to pay my loan without my even asking.”
Some help is available through the two largest lay organizations that support vocations, the Knights of Columbus and Serra International. Through its program of giving funds back to local councils that sponsor a seminarian or postulant, the Knights have given “more than $22.9 million to thousands of seminarians and postulants,” according to the national organization's Web site. Another fund provides scholarships specifically for seminarians, some 60% of whom are said to receive some funding from the Knights. Serra does not have a national fund that could be used for student loans, but individual clubs may sponsor candidates.
While the Iron Is Hot
Other avenues for support are emerging as well. Cy Laurent, a Minnesota businessman, has established the Laboure Foundation, an organization which aims to lift the impediment of debt from those called to the priest-hood or religious life. And Alfred Leopold, a business executive and a former administrator with Franciscan University of Steubenville, has established Veritas Foundation, an umbrella foundation to support giving to multiple causes that support Gospel values. Its first project, funded by one major donor and several smaller contributors, helped a young Franciscan University graduate enter the Carmelite order two years ago by taking over her payments on her student loans.
“I talked to the mother superior of the order and assured her we would stand in the place of this lady and make her loan payments, and when she makes final vows we would take it over,” Leopold says. “If she were to decide after two to three years of postulancy to come out of the Carmelites, she would be responsible for resuming the payments on her loans.”
The pay-down strategy appeals to benefactors, who would not want to plunk down a large sum — say, $20,000 — only to see the candidate leave right after entering, Leopold says. But even if the candidate does end up leaving after a period, the money contributed is still a good investment, he adds.
“Typically they're going to come out well-formed, able to serve the Church,” Leopold says. He tells of a friend who spent some time in a religious community then, after leaving, headed up a chastity program and eventually became director of youth ministry for a diocese.
At least a dozen candidates for priesthood and religious life have come to Veritas with a need for student loans to be resolved, Leopold says, and he is planning a fund-raising campaign to help them.
During his eight and a half years with the university's Austrian program, Leopold says, he saw many students develop their interest in religious life. At the same time, they were accumulating up to $40,000 in student loans.
“So many of them came to their decision to enter religious life at graduation. They have no choice but to go out into the secular world and to spend four, five, six years paying off their student loans just for the chance to enter religious life and seminary,” he says. “They have a very good chance of losing their vocation.
“Whereas right now if thousands of Catholic families would rise up and contribute $10, $20 or $50 a month to help support these men and women, we could have hundreds of candidates to enter religious life today, and we'd have five, six, seven years of service in the Church rather than working in the world,” he says. “If they have already fostered the vocation and are ready to go, why not strike when the iron is hot and immerse themselves in the priesthood and religious life?”
Running for Nuns
Catholics can also support vocations by giving to the orders themselves, rather than to individual aspirants. One such fund-raising project is the “Nun Run,” a five-kilometer race for all ages — including a cheering squad of sisters from the local orders — going on its second year in the Diocese of Dallas. The event was inspired by the concern of a local laywoman who learned that 20 women could not get into the communities they wanted because of college debt.
“The intent of the Nun Run is to raise awareness of vocations and to help aspirants,” says race organizer Mark Vahala, a financial planner and member of a local Serra chapter. “If we could get some money to the orders, that would help them recruit the women and pay for such things as travel expenses.”
He says the preference of the organizers is to support orders that are active and innovative in recruiting. “It seemed to me that some of them are pretty strict and others are a little bit more willing to work with [candidates] even if they are 38 and not 22,” he explains.
Vahala said he hopes this year to raise $25,000 and to bring out 1,000 participants, including Catholic school students — the religious of the future. He also plans to develop a “cookbook” for the Nun Run this year so the event could be imitated in dioceses all over the country.
Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.