"Sister, could you give me something to read
about singles in the Church?"
I was shopping recently at a local Catholic bookstore.
With a puzzled look, the little nun began searching the shelves.
Ten minutes later she unearthed two books. One was a guide to
dating for teenagers. As a 30-year-old single adult, with ample
dating experience, I doubted whether this book had anything
new to say to someone like me. The second book was on vocations
and included a chapter on "Holy Virginity." It could have been
written on another galaxy! Discouraged, I noticed that the bookshelves
were crammed with titles dealing with marriage enrichment, child-rearing
and religious life. Where did I, as a mature single, fit into
I wondered whether other singles felt as out-of-place
in the Catholic Church as I often did. Is there a place for
us in the Church? What needs to happen to make room for us?
Questions like these prompted me to write this Update.
The singles explosion
In America, we are in the middle of a veritable
explosion in the single adult population. If we broadly define
"single" to include the widowed and divorced as well as the
never-married, we find that one third of the total adult population
is single. That means for every married couple in our society,
there is one single adult! Of the population between ages 18
and 39, one half are single. While in the past single
adulthood was usually a brief transition period between adolescence
and marriage, today single life is often a long-term vocation.
Every American is likely to be without a marriage partner for
a substantial period of adult life, either by choice or loss
of a spouse.
This "singles explosion" shows no sign of losing
momentum. Father James Young, C.S.P., one of the founders of
the North American Conference of Divorced and Separated Catholics,
links the increase in the single population to radical changes
in the nature of marriage. "Today people expect much more from
marriage than ever before in history. As marriage becomes more
demanding, it must be acceptable not to marry. Marriage must
be a free choice."
To talk about what this "singles explosion" might
mean concretely for us as Catholics, a group of my single friends
recently gathered for a potluck dinner. Among the group were
not only several never-married men and women ranging from age
25 to 60, but also a young widowed mother, a divorced father
of six children and a 68-year-old widow. One glance at them
made me realize what a broad range of people are clumped together
under the label "single." No one there fit the stereotypes of
either "lonely loser" or "swinging single."
My friends were enthusiastic about the advantages
of singlehood for Catholics. Mary Lou, who is 68 and has been
a widow for many years, exclaimed, "I never would have guessed
it, but being on my own again is a great experience. I love
having time of my own and the freedom to just be me!" Michael,
41 and recently divorced, had a different perspective. "Until
my marriage ended, I never realized how selfish and narrow we,
as a couple, had become. Being single is really forcing me to
open up and reach out to other people."
When the talk turned specifically to our faith,
Steve, a 29-year-old, never-married jazz musician, had a lot
to say. "Being single gives me tremendous freedom to serve God.
Through my music I meet all different kinds of peoplefolks
who might never come in contact with the usual churchgoers.
I talk about my faith a lotbecause I know I'm in a position
to influence many people."
Naturally, there are disadvantages, too. Most
single adults feel ~> tremendous pressure to "couple-up." "The
toughest thing for me is never feeling like I fit in anywhere,"
commented Jane, a 30-year-old teacher. "I recently started seriously
dating a man and I was amazed at how relieved all my friends
and family were to have me coupled up. Suddenly I belonged.
I was easier to introduce, easier to relate to, no longer a
threat. How can Joe and I make a free choice about marriage
in the face of so much pressure?"
Mark, who's 34 and has never been married, nodded
in agreement with Jane. "It annoys me that people assume I'm
either gay or running from responsibility because I'm not married.
I have a high regard for marriage and don't want to marry until
I meet a woman who can build an enduring relationship with me.
In the meantime, I wish others would respect my choice!"
Mark's comment struck a chord with me. I recently
ran into some old friends, a married couple, at a wedding reception.
In the course of catching up on news I remarked that I wasn't
at all sure that marriage was for me, that I loved my freedom
to have a wide variety of friendships. "You'll change your mind
when someone asks you," the wife assured me. This really annoyed
me and I hastily informed her that I had been askedseveral
times! I am often irritated with the lack of respect for my
choice to be single.
Being single also makes you an easier target for
loneliness, especially in our mobile society. Even though most
singles create their own network of relationships, loneliness
is likely to strike at times like holidays or in the face of
a big adjustment. Recalled Mary, "I really felt alone when I
went away to graduate school. I unloaded my U-Haul, unpacked
all the boxes in my new apartment and then sat down and thought,
'Who's going to hug me?' All my friends were 500 miles
away. I wished I had a husband then."
Yet loneliness was not perceived by everyone as
a totally negative experience. John commented, "Being alone
forces you to depend on God. You know you need him. There can
be a false security in marriage or religious lifeyou find
a niche that you think will last forever."
Singles want to be Church, too
Gradually our talk centered more and more on our
Church and faith. Most of us had watched many single friends
drift away from the Church. Nearly all of us pointed to good
relationships with fellow Catholics as the reason we had stayed.
Yet many of these very good experiences seemed to occur outside
ofsometimes in spite ofthe Church as an institution.
When it comes to being actively and regularly involved in parish
life, many singles feel frustrated. Steve shrugged his shoulders
and said, "At church I feel like an oddball. Last year I moved
to the city. Our parish bulletin says, 'We welcome all new families
moving into our parish.' Where does that leave me as a single
"I wish the Church would help me with the big
questions in my life," remarked Marty, a single woman who is
34. "Take sex for example. It's tough to be a faithful Christian
in a society where casual sex seems to be the norm. I went to
confession and told a priest about struggles I was having with
my sexuality. He gave me a lecture and asked me to promise never
to see my boyfriend again. Where is a person supposed to get
guidance if not from the Church?"
Plenty of singles simply need help in living meaningful,
spiritually grounded lives. Lucy declared, "I can't emphasize
this enough: Being single is not being in limbo! You
can live a full, rich life as a single person. Too many singles
put their lives in a holding pattern. That's a huge waste!"
The Church can help prevent such a waste by finding
ways to support the single life as a valid path to God. Singles
would be less likely to enter unwise marriages or to abandon
the Church out of a sense of not being valued if we could all
adopt John's attitude: "I'm interested in making the single
life worknot disappear.
Singles bring many gifts to the Church
Because singles lack many of the obligations of
marriage or religious life, they are blessed with great freedom
to use their time, energy and resources as they choose. They
are often free to develop their own lives and to minister to
others, both within parishes and in the world outside the Church.
Those of us who are single can put our freedom to use in such
ways as the following:
1. We can use our freedom for healthy self-development.
Singleness can foster the self-knowledge and growth which are
foundation blocks for mature Christian life. For many, single
life will be an opportunity to establish an adult identity.
David, a single man who works in religious education, happily
confided, "Between ages 25 and 30 I feel I've established a
clear sense of self simply by having to create a life and homealone.
Now if I marry, it will be enrichment of an already meaningful
life, rather than an escape hatch or a cure."
Fo r others, a period or lifetime of single living
can afford upportunities to develop interests and talents. One
English teacher I know uses her leisure time to develop her
writing ability and to learn the ins and outs of free-lance
writing. She recently showed me a crayon-scribbled letter from
a friend who is a mother of two young children. "For heaven's
sake, take advantage of the present to write, write, write!"
penned her friend. "If you were in my shoes, you wouldn't have
the time to write a grocery list, let alone a novel."
The single life can also provide time to deepen
spirituality. John, for example, spends a quiet time in prayer
every morning before work. "It Would be very difficult to find
prayer-time if I were helping get kids off to school," he says.
Indeed, there are many singles who take advantage of their freedom
to spend time making retreats, studying Scripture or deepening
their prayer lives.
Other singles use their freedom to study psychology
or politics or art. Others may focus on improving career skills
or on hobbies or on physical fitness. All these activities can
contribute to healthy growth for the individual.
2. We can channel our freedom into community
or Church service. Perhaps St. Paul says it best. "I want
you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned
about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but
the one who is married is concerned about the things of the
world.., his interests are divided" (1 Corinthians 7:32-33).
Many single people are in a unique position to serve God through
their work in 'the outside world, as well as within the Church.
A group home for mentally handicapped adults is
the focal point of my friend Frank's life. Single and 29, Frank
is a resident counselor and brings a lot of energy and love
to the eight handicapped men with whom he works. Lin, a young
mother whose husband died five years ago, has made her large
home a cozy haven for not only herself and her seven-year-old
son but for scores of friends and relatives in her university
community. John devotes one weekend a month to retreat work
with the youth of his diocese. All these single adults are taking
advantage of their single state to serve God in very concrete
ways, both inside and outside the Church. Their work and home
lives are not ends in themselves but avenues for ministry.
3. Our freedom may provide more opportunities
to witness. If we take seriously Jesus' command to be "salt
of the earth" and "light to the world," we see that active involvement
in the larger world can be an important extension of our faith
Because we tend to move in larger orbits than
our married or religious counterparts, singles may have the
freedom to witness Christian values to a broader range of people.
Steve, my friend the jazz musician, is an example of this freedom.
My experience has been similar. As a teacher at
a secular university I have contact with hundreds of students.
I also have a wide circle of friends, family and professional
colleagues. Surely there is a great potential here to be used
as a channel of God's love. Someone has coined the term "mingles"
to describe singles. Such diverse "mingling" can be part of
our Christian witness.
How the Church can include singles
One's relationship to the Church, like any relationship,
is a two-way street. If these are the gifts that singles should
bring to the Church, what might we reasonably expect in return?
What can a particular parish do to nurture single Catholics?
In theory, the Catholic Church has always regarded
the single life as a valid vocation. But in practice there's
little positive support for it. Most parishes center their ministries
around family life and the education of children. "Between high
school and marriage, there's a vast wasteland in the Church,"
says one friend who works in youth ministry. Many Church leaders
believe that ministry to singles will be the main outreach area
in the 1980's and 90's. In the meantime, here's a list of steps
your parish can take now to involve singles.
1. Be energetic in inviting singles into the
Church. To discover the way the individual parish can help
singles, I interviewed Father Pat O'Neill, who has been active
in campus ministry for years and who has written a book, The
Single Adult (Paulist Press, 1980), offering insights and
practical advice. According to Father O'Neill, the first step
toward welcoming singles is to reach out to them personally.
For example, 10 years ago three dying parishes in New York City
launched a door-to-door campaign to invite local residents to
join their parishes. They discovered that 80 percent of them
were Catholic singles! These single adults now form thriving
congregations in these three parishes.
Another parish sponsors a priest to work as a
"missionary" to a large singles apartment complex where he is
resident chaplain. In another parish, a "hospitality committee"
keeps abreast of newcomers to the parish neighborhood. Resident
managers of several apartment complexes are regularly contacted
for the names of new residents. A letter welcoming them to the
neighborhood and inviting them to church is sent.
Father O'Neill believes that parish priests should
take the lead in inviting singles into the Church. "When was
the last time your parish priest preached a sermon about the
needs of singles? Perhaps Father could set aside Advent or Lent
as a good time to preach about the importance of reaching out
to single adults."
2. Watch your language. If we are to truly
welcome single adults, we need to change the language we use
to describe parish life. One midwestern parish has decided to
weed out of its sermons, bulletins and announcements all language
which excludes singles. "Young Couples Fellowship" has been
renamed "Adult Fellowship." The church bulletin has been rewritten
to say, "We welcome all individuals to our parish," instead
of "We welcome all new families." Priests are making a point
of including in their sermons examples drawn from the lives
of the widowed, the divorced and separated and their children,
and the never-married.
3. Put singles in leadership positions.
One parish has decided to actively invite singles into parish
leadership. The parish council and the advisory board of the
parish Family Life Office both include a single parent and a
single non-parent, as well as traditional family members. Singles
also serve as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, CCD teachers and
musicians. By placing singles in active, visible roles, this
parish is making the statement, "Singles are a valued part of
our parish family."
4. Provide opportunities for singles to "connect"
with others in the church. The parish is a place where a
wide variety of individuals can be "connected" to one another.
A young single man has cultivated a "big brother" relationship
with several young boys in his parishevery Saturday Joe
and "his boys" head for the basketball court or the zoo. A single
young woman has adopted an elderly widow as her "grandmother"the
two exchange gifts on Mother's Day and often go to the movies
or on shopping trips together. Several young men, both single
and married, meet every Saturday morning for prayer and breakfast.
One Ohio parish has created a network of 40 "circles
of spiritual companionship." Each circle consists of six to
eight adults. Some circles are made up entirely of single adults;
others are a mixture of singles, marrieds and children. Each
group meets together regularly for prayer, discussion, meals
and fun activities like picnics, weekend campouts and Halloween
The parish priest and other church leaders can
act as a clearinghouse to promote such nontraditional "family"
relationships. One church even includes "personal ads" in its
parish bulletin. A typical ad reads, "One 'adoptable' uncle
seeks young family to share Advent and Christmas holidays."
In all these creative ways, parishes across the country are
redefining family life so that it includes single adults.
5. Make sure the real needs of singles are
addressed. Once we discover and welcome the singles in our
parish, we can help them deal with their real needs. Father
O'Neill observes, "Singles aren't looking for programs or for
answers. They want a place to dialogue and hash out the big
issues in their lives. They are crying out for a spiritual life."
Closely related to a hunger for spirituality is
the necessity of coming to terms with needs for intimacy and
for balanced sexuality. Says Father O'Neill, "Singles are asking,
'What does it mean to love? How can I love my own life? Where
does my sexuality fit into the picture? How can I be fully masculine
or feminine?' Sexuality is much broader than sex." Regarding
this issue of sexuality, the National Office of Young Adult
Ministry (part of the education department of the United States
Catholic Conference) has developed "Guidelines for Workshops
on Spirituality and Sexuality" that interested groups can adapt
in planning workshops. (These "Guidelines" are published as
an appendix to Joan Ohanneson's new book, And They Felt No
Shame, which explores Christian sexuality, Winston Press,
There are existing models
Taking steps like these can help all of us to
value single adults. Perhaps we need to be reminded that such
individuals are part of a long-standing tradition. Too often
we forget that many of our canonized saints spent their lives
not as vowed religious but as single people serving God in the
world. St. Angela (founder of the Ursulines), Catherine McAuley
(founder of the Sisters of Mercy) and St. Francis all spent
a good part of their adult lives as singles. Their religious
orders sprang up after them, growing organically out of their
life's work. And there are many modern-day counterparts: Dorothy
Day, Dag Hammarskjold, Jean Vanier and Flannery O'Connor are
just a few.
The model for all Christians is a single adult
in Nazareth who lived his life outside the mainstream of both
marriage and religious life. Single adults may have a special
understanding of Jesus' life of solitary faithfulness. His life
reminds us that we need our single Catholics in the Church every
bit as much as they need us.