Help for the Future of the Church, The Anchor, August 16, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
August 16, 2013

When we look to how the Church in the United States grew so strong so fast, we have to admit that the principal reason was because of women religious. They were the ones who more than anyone else made the vast network of Catholic schools work. They made Catholic hospitals work. They began many charitable apostolates. They moonlighted teaching religious education programs in parishes. They taught everyone how to pray, how to say yes to God, and how to put God first. They inspired thousands of priestly vocations. And these are only the most conspicuous footprints of their tremendously fruitful apostolates.

This is not to deny or minimize the indispensable and enormous contributions of the clergy, religious brothers and Catholic families. The flourishing of the institutional Church in the United States was the hard work of the entire body of Christ. But women religious were the mothers of the entire growing family of the Church in the United States and so many sacrificed as hard as moms of big families do to nurture and care for a vast number of children with love.

As we confront the challenges of the New Evangelization, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever succeed without similar contributions from women religious. Because of that conviction, throughout my priesthood I’ve spent most of my vacation time preaching retreats or giving formation to various women’s religious communities that are experiencing a spring time of new vocations. I also dedicate a lot of time giving spiritual direction to young women discerning whether God is calling them to the consecrated life and, if so, to which community.

God is certainly calling many young women to this beautiful life and I’m happy to have gotten to know so many who have responded with a full-hearted fiat. But one of the troubling things I’ve discovered as I’ve been doing this work is something that wasn’t a big issue in the vocations boom of decades ago: how many young women being called to the religious life need to defer following that call for years for financial reasons.

In order to enter into religious life, a young woman needs to be debt free since once she begins living according to the vow of poverty she will earn no money of her own to pay off the debts. In past generations, this wasn’t a big deal, because most women were entering the convent right out of high school. Among those who went to college on their own, the college tuitions at the time were relatively affordable and the loans that needed to be taken out were small and payable somewhat quickly.

Today, many of those hearing God’s call to espouse themselves to him as women religious are college grads with massive loans to be repaid. The National Religious Vocations Conference did a study in 2010 that said that 42 percent of those aspiring to religious life in the US, who have been accepted and otherwise would be able to enter the convent or monastery, are blocked from pursuing the call to college loans, with the average loan being about $40,000 plus interest.

Those are huge sums to pay off in a very tough job market for college graduates where good jobs are scarce. Some women are working more than one job to be able to pay down these loans so that they can enter, but doing so requires two-to-three years worth of work. It’s tough for candidates to women’s religious life to gain access to really well-paying jobs because if they’re honest at an interview, many companies are not interested in hiring someone who will be at their company only long enough to pay off debts. And losing a job because of layoffs due to downsizing or Obamacare requirements only adds to the stress of seeking to follow the Lord.

There are some institutions that have arisen in order to try to help good young women in these circumstances. One is the Mater Ecclesiae Vocations Fund (fundforvocations.org), which last year helped 23 candidates enter religious life. The way it works is that it assumes responsibility for the monthly payments of college loans for as long as the person is in religious life. If the young woman decides to leave the convent, she reassumes responsibility for the monthly payments. Because of limited resources, however, the Mater Ecclesiae Vocations Fund needed to inform 11 applicants that as much as they wanted to be able to help them, they just didn’t have the funds.

Another organization is the Labouré Society (labouresociety.org), which over the last decade has helped 240 young men and women enter religious life through student loan resolution. The Labouré Society trains those who already accepted into a community how to raise money morally and sends them out for a period of six months to fundraise for the Labouré Society as a whole. Depending upon how large their loans and how much the individuals raise along with their fundraising “classmates,” they receive a pledge of quarterly loan payments that begins once they enter religious life and will have the rest of their loan paid off at their final vows. The Society has been able to raise and disburse $2 million since 2003.

I strongly recommend helping both of these organizations.

My preferred way, however, is helping people directly. On a priest’s salary, it’s impossible to help pay off major loans but I’ve been able to help a few women anonymously with smaller debts get them paid off so that they have been able to enter religious life.

I think it’s a really good investment for the future of the Church not to mention for my own priestly life and apostolate to have some religious woman committed to praying in gratitude each day for someone who has played the role of St. Nicholas in her life.

For larger debts, of course, I’m incapable, but I’ve been very happy to see that there are laypeople with great love for women religious and religious life who have been able to step up and help young women enter.

A young woman I befriended last year was trying to enter a women’s religious community here in Massachusetts and was working very hard in order to pay off her college loans. Even though she had a good job, she anticipated that it would take her a few years. A few months ago I found out that she would be entering that community this Fall. I asked her how she retired her debt so soon. She told me that a woman had visited the community where she’s planning to enter and was so impressed by their life that she asked the mother superior if there was anything she could do to help them. The superior asked if she’d be able to help a young woman enter the life by helping her reduce some of her loan debt. After the woman met my friend, she decided to pay off her entire debt.

I now have an inspiring young woman coming to see me for spiritual direction who wants to enter the Sisters for Life, the great new order founded by Cardinal John O’Connor that assists so many women in difficult pregnancies to choose life. The obstacle is that she owes $90,000 in college loans. She’s working really hard at a real estate company and waitressing to try to pay down the loans but with what she’s making and her daily expenses, it’s going to take her a few years. She’s talked to the societies above, but until her loans are substantially reduced, they don’t have the resources to help her.

I know that many Anchor readers value women’s religious life as much as I do and some have always wanted a religious from their own family. Putting out into the deep, I’m wondering if any of those reading this column would be willing to “adopt” her and help her pay off or down her loans so that she can enter the Sisters for Life?

If you can, please get in touch with me.