Student debt stands in the way of future nuns and priests | Trending Viral hub


It wasn’t until after college that Kendra Baker began to consider becoming a nun. She had been raised Roman Catholic and, after her father fell from the roof of their home and suffered life-threatening injuries, her family called a priest for her to come and pray with him. they. A few hours later, her father opened her eyes.

“He’s relearned how to walk, talk, drive; he can eat normally,” Baker, 25, said. “And the doctors had told us to prepare for a funeral.”

That was not the only experience that pushed Ms. Baker, who, after graduating from Western Washington University in 2021, moved to Seattle and began to feel a “gentle pull” toward religious life. “Not the booming voice of God saying, ‘Kendra, go to the convent now.’ But 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 by the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. Only one thing kept her from joining: his student loan debt.

People who wish to enter religious life in the Catholic tradition generally must pay all their debts in preparation for taking a vow of poverty, and other people living in religious communities typically earn no income or own assets, preventing them from paying. any debt they have accumulated as laymen. If you are among the 20 percent of Americans with college degrees who have student loan debt, this can pose significant challenges.

TO report of the National Conference on Religious Vocations raised the alarm more than a decade ago with data confirming that “educational debt had become a deterrent for many discerning a religious vocation,” pointing to factors such as the rising cost of tuition and the stagnation of wages. Since then, the average student loan debt in the United States has grown steadily, reaching a average around $30,000 in 2023.

Several organizations have emerged to help candidates for religious orders with this problem. Ms. Baker was contacted the society workeda non-profit Catholic group that has helped more than 400 people enter religious formation since its creation in 2003.

The average student loan amount of Labouré candidates or applicants is almost $100,000, and they are typically assigned a goal of raising $60,000 in a six-month cycle during which Labouré facilitators train them on how to make phone calls, write letters and attend meetings. with potential donors in their communities. Donations range from a few thousand dollars to $130,000 from a retired widow who was inspired to donate the proceeds from the sale of her home.

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

Jake Smith had already completed three years of medical school when he decided he wanted to join the priesthood. He is the second oldest of 12 children in what he described as a “salt-of-the-earth, light-of-the-world Catholic family,” and remembers receiving an early push toward a religious calling when he was 14 years old.

Having grown up hoping to one day marry and have a family, Mr. Smith, 31, felt conflicted and did his best to avoid the idea of ​​joining the priesthood for as long as possible.

“When I got accepted into medical school,” he said, “I felt like I threw my acceptance letter in front of God and said, ‘Okay, God, there’s no way you’re ever going to get me now.’ I’m going to be the best doctor you’ve ever had. I’m going to be the best father in the world. So leave me alone with this whole vocation thing.’”

But three years into his medical studies in Denver, after spending a day on a family medicine rotation, his thoughts turned again to the priesthood and what he might include in his first homily.

“I realized this was something that was never going to go away,” Smith said. After consulting with a priest at his church and speaking with a vocations director at his diocese, he began to realize that his student loan debt (just six figures) was a major 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 Smith, significant student loan debt can delay their 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 speaking with people interested in supporting religious vocations.

For those who may not have as extensive a Catholic network, fundraising could take a different form.

Kristen Chenoweth converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism when she was in her twenties and had no long-standing family connections or ties to the Catholic Church. After completing 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 loan debt. She was accepted into the Dominican Sisters of the Province of the Immaculate Conception in Illinois, but could not take his first steps in religious life until he paid off that debt.

He had begun paying off his loans by working, living frugally, fundraising in his diocese in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and selling rosaries on Etsy.

Ms. Chenoweth earned about $5,000 through her Etsy store and, with the help of the Dominican Sisters, raised $23,000 on GoFundMe. More recently, she received word that another Catholic organization that provides student debt support, the Vocations FundHe would pay off the rest of his loans and join his religious community this summer.

Unlike the Labouré Society, the Vocations Fund does not ask aspirants to raise money, but rather directly pays their monthly student loan payments for as long as they are in formation in a religious community.

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

Young applicants often face a drastically shorter time to repay their loans. Age limits on applicants, as low as 30 in some religious orders, create additional pressures. And while many religious communities and seminaries do not require applicants to have college degrees, others encourage or require them, especially if members provide health care or educational services to the community.

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

Sister Gianna, 30, a former biochemistry major, graduated with more than $20,000 in student loan debt. She began her religious training under an agreement that her family would cover her monthly payments and that they would pay her off before her final vows. When her family ran into financial difficulties a few years after her formation, the Vocations Fund agreed to pay off the remainder of her loans.

Now she has been able to pursue her education again, this time without fear of accumulating more debt because her religious community covers her costs, including tuition. Sister Gianna is studying to be a clinical mental health counselor at Divine Mercy University and completed her mental health training 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.

While many religious communities are funded through donations or businesses, such as the chocolates and candy sold by members of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Mississippi in Dubuque, Iowa, some pool the income that members such as nurses or educators earn from outside jobs. .

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

Although the sacrifices can be significant, religious life can also offer a rare type of freedom from the typical financial limitations and stressors that dictate most people’s lives.

“This 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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