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Single Catholics—
Making Them
Feel at Home

by Trudelle Thomas

"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 this picture?

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 people—folks who might never come in contact with the usual churchgoers. I talk about my faith a lot—because 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 asked—several 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 life—you 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 of—sometimes in spite of—the 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 man?"

"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 work—not 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 home—alone. 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 lives.

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 parish—every 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 parties.

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, 1983.)

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.

Trudelle Thomas is a single adult active in the Catholic community of Cincinnati. She also teaches writing at the University of Cincinnati and is a free-lance author. Published with ecclesiastical approval.

 

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