“Sorry guys, I won’t be eating dinner with you next week. I’m doing a live-in at the Marianist Sisters’ house.” One of my best friends I had met during my first year at college was very open with us about her discernment of religious life. In the moments after she made this announcement to the five of us who ate dinner together every night, several thoughts came into mind. Who are the Marianist sisters? Do they wear habits? I wonder if any of them are young. I looked around the table at people’s plates, seeing remnants of dried out chicken fingers, watery spaghetti, greasy french fries. I bet they have good food…
I had never seriously considered religious life before I went to college. I say not seriously because I do remember telling a friend in high school that I could see myself being a nun, but only when I got old and if I never married anyone. It wasn’t a serious notion, at that time anyway.
As a freshman in college, I felt like my entire life was ahead of me, and I spent a great deal of time considering all of life’s possibilities. Maybe religious life was one of them? “Do the sisters have any more room available for the live-in?” I asked. It turned out they did. So my first introduction to religious life was living with the Marianist Sisters for one week, getting a first-hand look at community life. We prayed together, ate meals together, played games, and stayed up late talking about people’s vocation stories. I found out that these sisters don’t wear habits. Some of them are young. And they do have good food. But before I noticed those things, what struck me first and foremost was their faithfulness to the Gospel and to their joyful commitment to community living. These are the reasons why, six years later, I am joining their congregation.
It’s no secret that religious life is undergoing a change. We tend to focus on the negatives of this change, how communities are smaller, and grayer, than they used to be, how many congregations are unable to support their institutions, while novitiates that used to be full now lie empty. This leads some to conclude that religious life is dead, or dying.
That’s what some people see. Now, here’s what I see: I see congregations, now smaller in number, becoming more creative in how they evangelize and maintain their charism by partnering with lay people, sharing with them their charism and mission. I see different congregations collaborating together in vocations ministries, religious formation programs (for example, inter-community novitiates), and apostalates. I see congregations more open to listening to the needs of the world, especially to the young and the poor, and seeing how they might meet those needs. Religious life is not dead. It is being renewed.
Here’s what else I see: thousands of milennials, alienated by society’s false promises of wealth and luxury, wanting to live their faith in a radical way. Some of them are attracted to lay movements like Regnum Christi or Catholic Worker Communities. But many of them are increasingly attracted to religious life. I personally know dozens of Milennial men and women who have actively discerned religious life, quite a few of whom are entering communities. Other religious men and women are noticing this shift as well.
Something most people don’t know, however, is that many of these milennials who would like to join religious life have student loan debt that prevents them from pursuing a vocation. Since communities are smaller than they used to be, and since religious congregations aren’t usually wealthy, most congregations cannot afford to assume a candidate’s debt. We can’t know for sure how many people have been turned away from a congregation because of their debt, but a recent CARA study suggests that 42% of those who would like to pursue a religious vocation are prevented from doing so because of debt. We as a Church have been praying for vocations to religious life for decades, but how many of us know that such an obstacle exists?
I never knew. I went all throughout college, my discernment growing deeper and more intentional, without knowing that this one thing would prevent me from becoming a Marianist Sister. Like most milennials, especially those that have attended private, Catholic universities, I graduated with a great deal of student loan debt. Before graduating from college, when I began considering the option of applying to their congregation, I found out the sisters would not be able to assume my loans. I was devastated.
If we are going to continue encouraging young people to consider religious life (and we should!), and if milennials and other generations after us continue to actively discern this life, then we must find a solution to the problem of student loans deterring vocations. Some organizations, such as the Mater Ecclesia Fund for Vocations and the Laboure Society, have started to work towards solving this problem. But they need help.
The good thing is that as Christians, we are a people of hope, and this situation is far from hopeless. There are things you can do to help. You can pray for vocations and for those who face this obstacle. You can tell others about this problem–too few people know how much student loans deter vocations, and raising awareness about important issues is always helpful. You can also consider donating to organizations such as the Laboure Society that make loan payments for men and women while they are in formation, allowing them the freedom to discern without having to worry about making their monthly payments.
We are living during an exciting time, both for religious life and for the Church. I am blessed to be a small part of the movement that is sweeping religious life. And I am hopeful that many others will join me.
Gabby Bibeau works in parish ministry in urban Dayton while fundraising for the Laboure Society to alleviate her loan debt before entering formation with the Marianist Sisters. For more information about the Marianists, vocations, or student debt, feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.