|Aquinas College student Wil Bernhard is planning to enter the Dominican Province of St. Joseph this summer, but first he must raise the money to pay off his student loan debt. He is currently participating in a program run by the Labouré Society, which supports men and women with a religious vocation who need to pay off debt before beginning their formation. Photo by Theresa Laurence|
With an eye towards graduating from Aquinas College in May, senior Wil Bernhard already knows what he wants to do next. It doesn’t involve sending out resumes or pounding the pavement searching for a job. Instead, he is drawn to a higher calling – to join the Dominican Province of St. Joseph and begin his seminary studies to become a Dominican priest.
But first, Bernhard has to overcome the student loan debt he has accrued while attending a private college.
It’s widely known that student loan debt heavily burdens many college graduates, but most people don’t realize that it can be a serious roadblock for those wanting to pursue a religious vocation. In a wide-ranging 2012 study on vocations, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that 70 percent of religious institutes turned at least one person away – a person who in all other aspects had been accepted into the community – because of financial issues.
“It’s a common problem in our country,” Bernhard said. “I really do think there would be more vocations if there were less debt.”
According to the CARA study, one-third of religious communities said that some serious inquirers do not pursue an application because of their debt, while another one-third does not complete their application because of their student loans. “We are losing vocations because of this issue,” the study concluded.
Enter the Labouré Society, an organization that offers resources, fundraising classes and mentorship to help aspiring vocations pay down their student loan debt so they can begin formation for religious life.
Bernhard, a member of the Labouré Society Winter Class of 2017, connected with them after being accepted by the Dominicans, and is now on a mission to raise $60,000 to pay down student loan debt.
Along with about two dozen fellow Labouré “aspirants,” Bernhard recently participated in an intensive three-day training course on the ethics of fundraising and mapped out a practical plan to tackle debt. He and his fellow aspirants are each tasked with raising $60,000, the average amount of debt owed by those seeking support through Labouré. While Bernhard personally owes less than that, he has pledged to raise that amount to support not only himself, but his fellow aspirants to the priesthood and religious life. “One hundred percent of every dollar raised is going to someone in formation,” Bernhard said.
“We are a national organization with the specific purpose of serving the Church by delivering vocations which would otherwise be lost,” Labouré Society founder Cy Laurent, a Minnesota businessman, told Catholic News Service.
The society doesn’t issue checks to aspirants, but takes over management of loan payment schedules. If a Labouré aspirant drops out of their religious formation, the funds they raised would go to supporting another man or woman pursing a religious vocation.
To be a part of the Labouré Society, “it’s really about stepping out there and building up a culture of vocations,” Bernhard said.
Since 2003, the Labouré Society has assisted more than 250 men and women pay down student debt and enter formation for religious life. The Society “is not a ragtag team,” Bernhard said.
“This is a very well-thought out protocol,” Laurent said.
With a board of directors that includes educators, bankers and attorneys, the Labouré Society provides accountability and money management support to all aspirants so donors can be confident their money is being used properly. “Sometimes you see a Go Fund Me account and it can be kind of sketchy,” Bernhard said, referring to the online personal fundraising tool used to pay off medical, student loan, and other debts.
Telling his vocation story to people all around the country, and making connections with individual donors, Bernhard said, “it’s really cool to be able to experience the generosity of the Church on multiple levels.” Some donors have given hundreds of dollars to his cause, while one boy wanted to donate $2.50. “There are people open and willing to support vocations in the country,” he said.
Originally from South Carolina, Bernhard is one of five children and was homeschooled through high school. He chose to attend Aquinas College because of its strong Catholic identity and location. Getting to know the Dominican Sisters on campus, and spending time at the Dominican House of Studies while traveling to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life, Bernhard became more immersed in Dominican spirituality.
While he felt a call to the priesthood from a young age, it was at Aquinas and studying abroad that Bernhard began to feel certain about his call to join the Dominicans. With a charism of teaching, preaching, parish work and campus ministry, the Dominican Province of St. Joseph focuses on “what the times need,” Bernhard said.
Like many religious orders, the Dominican Province of St. Joseph requires new aspirants to be debt-free before beginning their formation. They also require all men entering to have a college degree; some have advanced degrees and successful careers before entering.
With more than 70 men in formation, the Province of St. Joseph is among the fastest growing communities of men’s religious orders in the U.S. today. A recent upswing in vocations means the order can’t assume the debt of all aspirants. “Other orders are scrambling to recruit new members, but we have the opposite problem,” according to the Dominican Friars’ website.
Different orders and dioceses have different requirements for incoming vocations regarding student loan debt. The Diocese of Nashville, for example, does not require its seminarians to be debt-free before they can begin their priestly formation. Order priests, unlike diocesan priests, live in community and take a vow of poverty, so they would have no income with which to pay off debt, while diocesan priests do receive a salary, a portion of which could go to paying off student loan debt.
So, what if Bernhard doesn’t reach his fundraising goal and pay off his student loan debt before July? He’d rather not think about that right now, confident in his vocation and still months away from the deadline. “If you have a true vocation, you’ll make it happen,” he said. “The Lord is in charge. It’s a big game of trust.”
More information can be found at www.Labouresociety.org, or by emailing Wil Bernhard directly at Wilhelm@Laboureaspirant.org.