May 11, 2012

Faith and practicality should guide aspirants with debt, religious superior says

By Sean Gallagher

As Congress is set to debate keeping low interest rates on federally-backed student loans, religious orders across the country are feeling the effects of the large amount of educational debt that many young adults are carrying when they finish their college years.

The Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate recently released the results of a study it conducted on the effects of student loan debt on religious vocations in the U.S.

The study collected data from 477 religious orders that represents approximately two-thirds of men and women religious in the U.S.

The findings of the study include the fact that nearly 70 percent of the orders that participated turned away at least some serious inquirers in the past decade due to student loan debt. It also determined that slightly more than half of applicants with educational debt ended up not entering the communities.

Sister Mary Joseph PrickelWhen Sister Mary Joseph Prickel applied for entrance into the Steubenville, Ohio-based Sisters of Reparation to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, she was more than $50,000 in debt because of student loans she had incurred.

Formerly a member of St. Anthony Parish in Morris and teacher at St. Nicholas School in Ripley County, Sister Mary Joseph had her entire debt paid off by an anonymous benefactor after her story was recounted in The Criterion in May 2010. (Related story: Aspirant to religious life held back by student loan debt)

She is currently a novice in her order. If she and her community discern that God is truly calling her to religious life, she expects to profess vows in September 2013.

“I will always be eternally grateful for my benefactor,” Sister Mary Joseph said in a recent telephone interview with The Criterion. “I remember that person in my daily prayers and at daily Mass.”

She said that she also prays often for young adults who, like her, believe that God is calling them to religious life, but are held back from responding to that call due to student loan debt.

“Waiting upon the Lord and upon his will is very challenging,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “But I also recognize the great joy that comes from waiting upon the Lord and receiving the good gifts that he has for us.”

Mother Mary Wendy McMenamy, superior of the Sisters of Reparation, said the resolution of the difficult cases of aspirants to religious life who have student loan debt will be brought about through faith.

“The Lord Jesus is the way, the truth and the life,” she said. “He is the one who provides, like he provided for Sister Mary Joseph.”

Mother Wendy, however, had some practical advice for youths who are approaching their college years and think that God might be calling them to religious life—make educational choices that won’t result in tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

“Go to a community college, something that’s not going to put you in a huge amount of debt,” Mother Wendy said. “You don’t have to go to an Ivy League school. You don’t have to go to a big school and get $60,000 in debt.”

Young adults could then investigate religious orders while taking classes. And if after a few years of classes they feel ready to apply for entrance to an order and are accepted, then they can continue their education.

“Once you enter a community, you dialogue with the superior about what talents you have and what the community needs,” Mother Wendy said. “You put it all together. And you put a plan forward.”

For individuals who have incurred a lot of student loan debt, Mother Wendy recommended leaving no stone unturned to look for ways to retire that debt.

Members of her community in that situation worked at jobs, hosted fundraising dinners, sponsored raffles and received financial support from their home parishes and organizations like the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations (, which awards grants to help pay off the student loan debt of young adults who have discerned a call to the priesthood or religious life.

Sister Mary Joseph learned through her own story that people often need help from others to do the will of God in their lives.

She hopes that everyone will be generous, whether they are called to religious life or called to help others respond to a vocation.

“I pray that all people will be open to the voice of God and respond to whatever way he’s asking them to be generous and to give of themselves to him,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “That’s ultimately how fulfillment occurs.” †

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