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It’s not widely recognized, but one of the reasons many men and women don’t pursue a priestly or religious vocation has nothing to do with spirituality. It has a lot to do with finances. They have substantial debts from student loans or on credit cards.
You can understand that most religious orders and dioceses can’t be expected to pay off the loans that applicants have racked up. Only about four in 10 religious institutes take on that responsibility. Often, they have no choice but to tell the applicants to pay off the loans and then apply again. And it has become more and more difficult to pay them off.
There was a time when young people could work their way through college, paying for their tuition, room and board while working at jobs. That time seems to be gone as college expenses have skyrocketed. Today those expenses are usually met by a combination of payments by parents, scholarships, students’ jobs and loans.
Those loans can sometimes seem astronomical, especially if they cover both bachelor and graduate degrees. The average debt of borrowers with a graduate degree is now more than $40,000.
Studies have been made concerning how this is affecting religious and priestly vocations, but they are a few years old. In January 2014, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) polled the seminarians and brothers and sisters who entered religious life in 2013. It found that 10 percent of them had had to postpone their entrance by an average of two years. They had an average of $31,100 in educational debt when they applied.
These figures, however, seem low. A different study found that 42 percent of individuals wanting to test their vocations are blocked because of outstanding student loans.
CARA had a better survey in 2012 when it surveyed 47,113 men and women religious and young people who had inquired about entering religious life. This study found that financial debt not only delayed some of them from entering religious life, but prevented many of them from applying at all.
We found these statistics in an article in the Nov. 14 issue of America magazine. The author, Jesuit Father Sean Salai, pointed out that debt not only affects men and women who feel a call to religious life, but also young people who delay marriage because of their financial obligations. That is true, and it’s one of the reason why some young people live together instead of marrying. But that is for another editorial. This one is focused on religious and priestly vocations.
Fortunately, there are a couple organizations that have recognized the problem and are trying to do something about it. One is the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations, which operates two programs: the St. Joseph Student Debt Relief Grant Program for religious life and the St. John Vianney Student Debt Relief Grant Program for the diocesan priesthood.
Founded in 2007 by Corey Huber, these programs have helped 150 men and women follow their vocations by giving them grants to pay off their student debts. That’s the good news. The bad news, according to the fund’s webpage, is that it had to turn away more than100 young people who applied for grants.
The other organization is the Laboure Society. Founded in 2003 by Minnesota businessman Cy Laurent, it has helped more than 240 men and women enter formation for the priesthood or religious life. In this case, the average applicant for grants has about $60,000 in loans.
Naturally, for both organizations, if the applicants begin formation in religious institutions or a seminary and then decide that the priesthood or religious life is not for them, they must resume their own debt payments.
According to the Laboure Society’s director of advancement, Bill LeMire, there are about 4,000 men and women seriously discerning the priesthood or religious life, but they have outstanding student loans. If this is true, the work of these two organizations, while extremely helpful, is only skimming the surface. Much more should be done to make it possible for these people to enter seminaries or religious communities than is now being done.
Anyone who would like to help can find the website for the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations at fundforvocations.org. The Laboure Society’s website is labouresociety.org.
—John F. Fink