Society won’t let debt derail vocations

As many as 42 percent give up on discernment because of loan burdens

DETROIT — The Church needs vocations to the priesthood and vowed religious life, but most people discerning a vocation these days tend to be older than was the case decades ago.

That means they’ve probably completed at least a few years of college, if they don’t already have a bachelor’s or master’s degree. It also means they’ve likely racked up at least some student loan debt, and maybe a whole lot of student loan debt — into the tens of thousands of dollars.

That much debt can sometimes be an obstacle in pursuing a Church vocation, but there is now more help available than ever before to work with aspirants in order to resolve debt situations.

That doesn’t mean those discerning a vocation can expect a religious congregation to help them directly — though some such as the Detroit-based Capuchin Province of St. Joseph actually will to a certain degree.

But religious communities will often guide an aspirant in conducting his or her own fundraising campaign to pay off debt, or at least refer them to an organization that will.

Perhaps the best known such organization is the Laboure Society, which in its seven years of existence has helped more than 230 individuals who are now professed, ordained or in formation.

That’s no small feat, considering that the average student loan debt for vocation-seekers averaged $40,000.

“Today, there are about 10,000 people discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, and 42 percent — that’s 4,200 of them — are not able to enter formation because of education loans,” said Cy Laurent, founder and executive director of the Laboure Society.

The society grew out of Laurent’s personal efforts, as a successful business consultant, to help aspirants with his own money. It started about 15 years ago when a business associate asked him to counsel a young woman who was seeking a career change.

“When I met her, she was wearing a large Miraculous Medal pendant on her business attire. When I noted it, she told me she ‘used to have a religious vocation,’” Laurent recounted.

The problem, she told him, was her educational loan debt. So Laurent enlisted the support of a few friends, and together they removed that impediment. “It just seemed the right thing to do,” he said.

Then, seven years later, he came to know a family that also attended daily Mass at his parish, St. John Neumann in Eagan, Minn. That family included a daughter, Catherine, who was also wearing a large Miraculous Medal pendant, and who turned out also to be someone whose only obstacle to pursuing a religious vocation was her student debt.

So, once again, Laurent went to work to solve the problem, and today, Catherine has been a professed sister for two years.

Laurent began to suspect he’d only seen the tip of the iceberg when it came to young people being blocked in their discernment process by debt.

So he founded the society, with St. Catherine Laboure — the 19th-century French nun who told of the Blessed Virgin’s message regarding the Miraculous Medal — as its patroness.

The society coaches aspirants on how to conduct their fundraising campaigns, engaging the support of the Catholic faithful who are willing to help them resolve their debt.

Much the same approach is followed by the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, explained Sr. Joseph Andrew, OP, the congregation’s vocation director.

“We just received 20 young women last week, about 12 of whom either were in college or have college degrees,” she said. And that means student loan debt ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, she continued.

They do not have to have their debt resolved in order to be accepted as postulants, but must be debt-free by the time they finish the year of postulancy and two years of novitiate.

“I just challenge them to get busy to pay it off,” Sr. Joseph Andrew said, adding that there are “so many wonderful Catholic people” willing to help.

Besides the appeals to parish groups, Knights of Columbus councils and other such sources, she said the young women had shown themselves “very creative and pro-active” in their fundraising efforts.

One aspirant from Texas staged a show, called “Clergy Have Talent,” in her home diocese, in which local priests and seminarians showed off their abilities as singers or musicians, or gave poetic recitations, she gave as one example.

“Another got a Chick-Fil-A to commit to give a percentage of that day’s sales to help her, and 800 people showed up,” Sr. Joseph Andrew said.

The worst thing would be for a young woman to put her response to a sense of vocation on hold. “I say to them, ‘Why are you waiting to give your life to God if He is calling?” she said.

For men discerning a vocation to the diocesan priesthood in the Archdiocese of Detroit, the situation is somewhat different, said Fr. Tim Birney, director of priestly vocations.

“We do accept candidates with debt as long as they can service it or, as with student loan debt, defer it,” he said.

Only if a candidate has non-deferrable debt deemed so large it would interfere with their formation process or of such a nature that it seemed part of a pattern of financial irresponsibility would it be grounds for rejection, Fr. Birney said.

Unlike how religious orders assume responsibility for a member’s remaining debt after he or she becomes professed, the archdiocese does not assume any responsibility for a new priest’s debt when he is ordained.

But, Fr. Birney added, that means a newly ordained priest may enter upon his priesthood with a large debt to retire.

Some help with this problem comes from the Fisherman’s Fund, the foundation set up to help college-level seminarians with their tuition and expenses (graduate-level seminarians’ tuition is covered by the archdiocese), Fr. Birney said.

Any money left over each year after providing scholarships for the college seminarians is allocated to the members of that year’s new priests as ordination gifts to help them retire their student loans.

The ordination gifts given by family and friends also goes a long way to helping new priests retire old debt, he added.