Peace be with you! My name is Br. Nov. Gregory Symonds. I am a novice at St. Bernard Benedictine Abbey in Cullman, AL. I would like to share with you in this article some thoughts and reflections about vocations and contemporary American society.
You might have heard about the crisis in the Church on the dearth of vocations. Much of what has been written on this is true. I would like to point out an often neglected aspect to the discussion—debt.
Fr. Anthony Bannon once wrote that debt is the number one vocation killer and he is correct. In the “dearth of vocations” talks, we often hear about a “liberal regime” squashing “orthodox” men and women from formation programs. What we do not hear much about are the many stories of men and women who wish to dedicate their lives to God vis-à-vis religious life or priesthood but have accrued debt and are hindered in their desire.
In the lives of such men and women, the Lord has called them to do some other work for Him before calling them into holy service. Such work is a type of “preparatory stage” for these men and women so that they may make vows or holy orders with a better mind and heart for the life of a priest or religious. This usually means that some human or intellectual formation is necessary. Whatever the reason, the Lord has providentially willed the work but it sometimes comes at a price.
Many of our young Catholic men and women are asked to attend college by vocation directors. This request is often made because the directors see something lacking in the character of these men and women. This “lacking” will vary from person to person but whatever it may be, vocation directors wish it to be addressed before entrance to seminary/religious formation can take place. Believing it to be the Will of God, these young men and women do enter college and obtain their degree.
Attending a four-year college educational program, however, does not come without a price tag and this fact is often overlooked.
By the end of a four-year degree program at a reputable University, the average student will have paid roughly $80,000. Some of this is reduced by grants and scholarships but a large bulk of that cost is taken up in educational loans. These loans must be paid back before a person can enter the religious life or in the case of diocesan priesthood, reduced to a certain amount (which varies from diocese to diocese).
Fifty or so years ago, the cultural and financial situation was not like it is today. A number of religious communities and dioceses accepted young men and women out of high school in larger numbers than they do now. The order or diocese educated them and paid the costs because the person was dedicating their lives to Christ through the order/diocese. The cultural situation, however, shifted in the last forty years with the reforms in the Church after Vatican II and in the secular world with the onset of greater lay-involvement in the Church and higher education being pushed more in American society respectively.
Many vocation directors now value prior education and the experience that comes with it so as to have more well-rounded social individuals able to meet the challenges the Church faces in contemporary society. As a direct result, more vocations were becoming “delayed” and others were lost entirely in a monumental task of repaying their academic debts.
To put it simply, the Church was not prepared for the shift in culture and has suffered casualties. To rectify the situation, efforts are currently underway to answer this need in the Church. I would like to point out one in particular—The Laboure Society in Eagan, MN.
In 2001, Minnesota businessman Cy Laurent realized that vocations in the Church were becoming compromised due to academic debt. Together with other people, Laurent founded the Society in order to help these men and women retire their debts by instituting an attractive 501(c) (3) program for benefactors. In addition to the program, the Society provides hope and encouragement through personal and individual coaching to the men and women seeking the benefit of the Society’s program. These men and women are called “aspirants” in Society parlance.
The Society does not have its own funds and operates solely upon donations given by generous benefactors through the individual aspirant. Thus, each aspirant has to raise awareness of their cause in order to find benefactors. To do this, the aspirants have come up with creative ideas. Outside of standard employment, some examples of their creative efforts include making music CD’s, hosting fundraisers and even appearing on the radio. These efforts have met with success and the Society takes great pride in the over 100 men and women it has helped so far to enter the consecrated life/priesthood.
I would like to make a personal appeal for every reader to support the work of the Society by assisting its aspirants. The Society is available on the Internet at www.labouresociety.org where you can find more information about the program, how it works and how you can help. Vocations are depending upon you—mine included.