April 12, 2024

Student debt is holding back future nuns and priests

It wasn’t until after college that Kendra Baker began considering becoming a nun. She was raised Roman Catholic and after her father fell from the roof of their house and suffered life-threatening injuries, her family called a priest to come and pray with them. A few hours later her father opened his eyes.

“He has learned to walk, talk and drive again – he can eat normally,” said Mrs Baker, 25. ‘And doctors told us to prepare for a funeral.’

That wasn’t the only experience that nudged Ms. Baker, who moved to Seattle after graduating from Western Washington University in 2021 and began to feel a “gentle nudge” toward religious life. “Not the booming voice of God saying, ‘Kendra, go to the monastery now.’ But just very gentle,” she said.

After much thought and research, Ms. Baker found a religious community that she felt aligned with her interests in both contemplative spirituality and active service, and she was soon accepted as a candidate into the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. Only one thing kept her from participating: her student debt.

People who wish to enter a religious life in the Catholic tradition typically must pay off all their debts to prepare to take a vow of poverty, and others who live in religious communities typically do not earn an income or own assets, leaving they cannot pay. all the debts they have accrued as laymen. If they are among the 20 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s degree who have student debt, this can pose significant challenges.

A report from the National Conference for Religious Vocations sounded the alarm more than a decade ago with data confirming that “education debt had become a deterrent for many pursuing a religious vocation,” pointing to factors such as the rising cost of tuition and stagnation of wages. Since then, the average student debt in the United States has grown steadily, reaching an average of about $30,000 by 2023.

Several organizations have sprung up to help religious order candidates with this problem. Ms Baker was put in touch with the Labouré Society, a Catholic non-profit organization that has helped more than 400 people with their religious formation since its founding in 2003.

The average student loan amount of Labouré candidates or aspirants is almost $100,000, and they are typically given a goal of raising $60,000 in a six-month cycle, during which Labouré facilitators train them in making phone calls, writing letters and attending meetings. with potential donors in their communities. Donations ranged from a few thousand dollars to $130,000 from a retired widow who felt inspired to donate the proceeds from the sale of her home.

Ms Baker said she did not feel comfortable sharing the full amount of debt she had, but that it would have taken her another five to 10 years to pay it off if she had not found help through the Labouré Society. Instead, she achieved her goal within six months and will join her religious community in Los Angeles this summer.

Jake Smith had been in medical school for three years when he decided he wanted to enter the priesthood. The second-eldest of twelve children in what he described as a “salt of the earth, light of the world Catholic family,” he recalls having an early inspiration for a religious vocation at the age of fourteen.

Growing up hoping that he would one day get married and start a family, the 31-year-old Smith felt conflicted and did his best to avoid the idea of ​​joining the priesthood for as long as possible.

“When I got accepted to medical school,” he said, “I felt like I was throwing my acceptance letter down before God, and I thought, ‘Okay God, there’s no way you’re ever going to get another chance. me now. I’ll be the best doctor you’ve ever had. I’m going to be the best dad in the whole world. So just leave me alone with all this calling stuff.’”

But three years into medical school in Denver, after a day spent in a family medicine rotation, he found his thoughts drifting back to the priesthood and what he might include in his first sermon.

“I realized this was something that was never going to go away,” Mr Smith said. After consulting with a priest at his church and speaking with a vocations director in his diocese, he began to realize that his student debt — in the low six figures — was a significant obstacle.

Diocesan priests, unlike those living in religious communities, typically earn a modest stipend and are sometimes allowed to carry a small amount of debt before entering a seminary. But for people like Mr. Smith, significant student debt can delay entry into the priesthood for years or even indefinitely.

Mr Smith hopes to pay off his student loans through the Labouré Society in the next 12 to 18 months and has already raised just under $60,000 by soliciting donations from local Catholics and talking to people interested in supporting religious vocations .

For those who may not have such a widespread Catholic network, fundraising can take a different form.

Kristen Chenoweth converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism in her mid-20s and had no longstanding ties or family ties to the Catholic Church. After earning a bachelor’s degree in family ministry and a master’s degree in nonprofit administration, Ms. Chenoweth, now 30, had about $80,000 in student debt. She was admitted to the Dominican Sisters of the Immaculate Conception Province in Illinois, but could not take her first steps in religious life until that debt was paid off.

She had begun paying off her loans by working, living frugally, raising money from her diocese in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and selling rosaries on Etsy.

Ms. Chenoweth made about $5,000 through her Etsy store and, with the help of the Dominican Sisters, raised $23,000 through GoFundMe. More recently, she received news that another Catholic organization that supports student debt, the Vocations Fund, would pay the remainder of her loans, and she would join her religious community this summer.

Unlike the Labouré Society, the Vocations Fund does not ask aspirants to raise money, but instead pays their monthly student loans directly for the entire time they are in training with a religious community.

Founded in the early 2000s, the Vocations Fund has grown significantly in recent years to meet demand. The organization was able to distribute 28 grants last year totaling approximately $900,000, in amounts ranging from approximately $5,000 to more than $75,000, depending on the needs of the applicants.

Young aspirants often face a drastically shorter period to repay their loans. The age limits of applicants, which in some religious orders are as high as 30 years old, create additional pressure. And while many religious communities and seminaries do not require applicants to have a college degree, others encourage or require it, especially if members provide health care or educational services to the community.

Once they take final vows, those who enter religious life also enter a whole new financial reality. For Sister Gianna Casino, living as a religious sister in the Sourdough of the Immaculate Heart of Mary community and taking her final vows in 2020 has given her a sense of financial freedom.

A former biochemistry major, Sister Gianna, 30, graduated with more than $20,000 in student debt. She began religious education under the agreement that her family would pay her monthly payments and that this would be paid off before her final vows. When her family encountered financial difficulties a few years into her formation process, the Vocations Fund agreed to pay off the remainder of her loans.

Now she can continue her education again, this time without fear of more debt, because her religious community will cover her costs, including tuition. Sister Gianna is a clinical mental health major at Divine Mercy University and completed a mental health residency at Harvard Medical School. Although earning the degree will be free, any income she earns once she graduates will be shared with her religious order.

Although many religious communities are funded by donations or businesses, such as the chocolates and candies sold by members of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, some constitute income that members, such as nurses or teachers, earn from outside jobs .

“I can study without fear or worry,” Sister Gianna said. “I can focus on prayer and focus spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually on the people I will serve in the coming years, and even now, because my community supports me financially in this way.”

While the sacrifices can be significant, religious life can also provide a rare form of liberation from the typical financial constraints and stressors that define most people’s lives.

“It brings me back to the Gospel of Luke,” Sister Gianna said. “Jesus says, ‘You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money. ”

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