Student Debt Causes Delay in Joining Convent, Report Finds

Survey Shows Half of Those Professing Perpetual Vows in 2013 Were Age 37 or Younger

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Debt from college loans makes some men and women postpone joining a religious community, according to a survey of men and women professing final vows in a religious order. 

Ten percent of those who professed final vows in 2013 had an average amount of $31,000 in college debt and the average length of delay was two years, according to “New Sisters and Brothers Professing Perpetual Vows in Religious Life: The Profession Class of 2013.” The annual survey was conducted by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

“None of the brothers reported receiving assistance in paying down their educational debt prior to entering their religious institute. Among women religious, several reported assistance from these groups in paying down their debt,” the survey reported. It noted that assistance came from family members, their religious institute, their parish, the Labouré Society, friends/co-workers, the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations, the Serra Fund for Vocations and the Knights of Columbus Fund for Vocations.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations commissioned the survey and released the results to the public before the annual celebration of World Day for Consecrated Life. The occasion is marked in the United States February 1-2, 2014. The entire survey can be found at

The CARA survey polled women and men religious who professed perpetual vows in 2013 in a religious congregation, province or monastery based in the U.S. CARA received a response from 460 of 823 major superiors, for an overall response rate of 56 percent among religious institutes. In all, 71 percent of LCWR superiors, 60 percent of CMSM superiors, 47 percent of CMSWR superiors, and 28 percent of superiors of contemplative communities provided contact information for 107 members who professed perpetual vows in 2013.
 Of these 107 women and men, a total of 69 sisters and nuns and 11 brothers responded to the survey. These brothers may include some men who will also study for the priesthood. This represents a response rate of 75 percent of the 107 potential members of the Profession Class of 2013 that were reported to CARA by major superiors.  

Among major findings:

•  Half of the responders are age 37 or younger. The youngest is 26; the oldest is 73.

•  Almost three-fourths (74 percent) identify as white, one in seven (14 percent) identifies as Asian, and more than one in ten (12 percent) identifies as Hispanic.  

•  Most (76 percent) were born in the U.S. Of those born outside the United States, the most common country of origin is Vietnam.  

•  Among those identifying as Hispanic/Latino two-thirds (67 percent) are U.S. born and one-third (33 percent) are foreign born. Those identifying as Asian/Pacific Islander/ Native Hawaiian (82 percent) are predominantly foreign born. Nearly all identifying as Caucasian/white (88 percent) are U.S. born.

•  On average, the respondents who were born outside the United States were 22 years old when they first came to the United States and lived here for 17 years before perpetual profession.  

•  More than eight in ten (82 percent) responders have been Catholic since birth. Almost eight in ten (77 percent) come from families in which both parents are Catholic. Among the 18 percent who became Catholic later in life, the average age at which they converted was 22.

•  More than eight in ten responding religious (85 percent) have at least one sibling and the most common number of siblings is two. Almost half (47 percent) of the responders have four or more siblings. 

•  About four in ten responders (43 percent) attended a Catholic elementary school, which is similar to that for all Catholic adults in the United States (42 percent). These respondents are more likely than other U.S. Catholics to have attended a Catholic high school (31 percent of respondents, compared to 22 percent of U.S. adult Catholics) and much more likely to have attended a Catholic college (30 percent of responding religious, compared to just 7 percent of U.S. adult Catholics). Responding women religious are less likely than brothers to have attended a Catholic college (26 percent for women compared to 55 percent for men).

•  Respondents are highly educated. Twenty-four percent earned a graduate degree before entering their religious institute. Two in three (65 percent) entered their religious institute with at least a bachelor’s degree or more (65 percent for women and 63 percent for men).

•  Nearly all responding religious (89 percent) had work experience prior to entering their religious institute. Of those who were employed, a quarter (25 percent) worked part-time and just under two-thirds (64 percent) worked full-time before entering the institute. Women religious are more likely than men to have been employed in education; men religious are more likely than women to have been employed in business. Men and women are equally likely to have been employed in health care or in church ministry.

•  Many respondents were active in parish life before entering their community. Almost half (46 percent) participated in youth ministry or youth group. A third participated in Catholic campus ministry or a Newman Center. A quarter participated in a young adult ministry or group and/or in World Youth Day. 

•  Nine in ten (90 percent) had ministry experience before entering their religious institute, most commonly in faith formation (54 percent). Four in ten served in a social service ministry and one in ten taught in a Catholic school or served in hospital or prison ministry.

•  Nearly all respondents (94 percent) regularly participated in some type of private prayer activity before they entered their religious institute. Seven in ten participated in Eucharistic Adoration or retreats before entering. More than half regularly prayed the rosary or participated in spiritual direction before entering. 

•  On average, responding religious report that they were 20 years old when they first considered a vocation to religious life, but half were 17 or younger when they first did so.  

•  Eight in ten respondents (81 percent) say they were encouraged to consider religious life. Just under half (46 percent) say they were encouraged by a religious. Four in ten were encouraged by a parish priest or friend.

•  Almost two-thirds (62 percent) report that they were discouraged from considering a vocation by one or more persons. Most reported that they were discouraged by a family member other than a parent (36 percent) or by friends or classmates (30 percent). Women were more likely than men to say they were discouraged by a relative other than a parent (41 percent compared to 9 percent).

•  On average, these religious report that they knew the members of their religious institute for four years before they entered, but half knew them for two years or less. One in four (24 percent) first became acquainted with their institute through promotional material from the institute. One in five first learned of their institute through a priest or advisor.

•  Nearly all religious of the Profession Class of 2013 (91 percent) participated in some type of vocation program or experience before entering their religious institute. Most commonly, this was a vocation retreat (59 percent) or a “Come and See” experience (52 percent). Men were slightly less likely than women to have participated in a “Come and See” experience (46 percent and 58 percent, respectively) or in a vocation retreat (36 percent for men compared to 62 percent for women).

•  One in ten institutes had one perpetual profession and 3 percent reported two or more.

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