Single and Catholic

A single friend who recently moved posted a note on her Facebook page: “Was trying out a new church on Sunday when the pastor announced that his November sermon series would be about marriage. ‘And what if you’re not married?’ he asked us. ‘Well, Scripture says “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”’

Not the most welcoming way of putting it. “Excuse me?” my friend responded. “In other words, singles, suck it up. Won’t be returning there.”

Most of the responses were supportive, as you’d expect from friends, but several dismissed her concerns or told her, in various ways, to suck it up and stop whining. Other single friends, includingwidows and single mothers who were single because their loutish husbands left them for Miss Suzy Cupcake, have told me they don’t talk about their struggles because the chances of being dismissed or patronized or even condemned are too high.

I’ve been in conversations when a single friend mentioned the difficulties of being single and people who were normally caring blew them off or even laughed at them, as if they were teenagers fretting over an almost invisible blemish. People surrounded by their lovely families will immediately counter with some statement about the trials of marriage and sometimes a lecture on the blessings of being single. Normal manners would require them to listen and at least feign sympathy, but they don’t.

The day after my friend posted her note, the Catholic blogger Katrina Fernandez wrote a poignant piece on the loneliness of being a single mother. “Church can be an incredibly lonely place. It was why I stopped going for a time. It’s why some Sundays I can barely drag myself there just to sit in the pew alone. Surrounded by families. And married couples. So many families and couples.”

A single working mother in her late thirties, she noted: “I’m too old for Young Adult Ministries, too divorced for Married Ministries, too employed to meet during the day for Mommy Groups, and I have no free time available to volunteer. In terms of service, I feel as a single parent I literally have nothing of myself to offer the Church, therefore I’m not even a blip on Her radar. Insignificant, unimportant, non-contributer, single-parent me.”

Listening to sermons, reading Christians writing on the web, and hearing others talk about single Catholics (when they do), I often feel the only single people of interest to other Christians are homosexual ones and they are only because they’re seen as a threat. But, of any conscious pastoral concern for those who aren’t married there is little evidence, other than the formation of singles fellowships, which might help, but also “ghetto-ize” the single people. It might be a gesture of care but it can feel like an invitation to go away—the whole lot of you.

Even the Extraordinary Synod on the Family failed to deal with single-parent families, or with single people in general (who, if they are on their own form a kind of “family unit”), although it was supposed to address “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” As Fernandez wrote of the Interim Relatio, “It’s all divorced and remarried Catholics and gay Catholics with their ‘special gifts.’” The synod’s final statement says only that “Special attention should be given to the accompaniment of single-parent families, in a particular way to help women who have to carry alone the responsibility of the home and raising children.” Big whoop. And of widows and their children, those of whom St. James said “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction,” nothing.

In church, we hear a lot about marriage, praise for those who’ve been married a long time, sympathy for those with troubled marriages, encouragement to keep on going. Little of the same sort is done for single people. But the problem isn’t just the general ignoring of single people, or the special and frequent attention given to the married. It’s the discounted version of marriage the married hear about. The lesson conveyed is not that we all have our callings and our struggles, but that the married are special and privileged.

How many of those sermons on marriage really challenge married people at the point it will hurt? In Catholic churches, how often does a priest say that, in addition to being a call and a blessing, marriage is also a duty, and that one of those duties is to be open to life? How often is the full meaning of chastity declared to the married as it is to the single? They’re told not to have sex. The married should be reminded that they get to have sex, but only in a completely self-giving way that will produce children—probably more than they originally planned on, or think they can afford.

The family sells. That’s a great part of the problem. When I was an Episcopalian, I heard an Episcopal minister, pastor of a successful suburban parish, tell a group that they ought to preach on the family and push family programs because parents with children were their “target demographic.” He mentioned that this would alienate other people, but he didn’t care. You did what you had to do to “grow the church.” This represented a toxic combination of the mainstream belief in the church as a gathered community, Evangelical pragmatism, and ecclesial commercialism, the victims of which were people who didn’t provide enough “market share.”

Catholic priests are not so crass, yet it must be difficult not to bend your preaching and your programs to the majority of your parishioners and to say what they want to hear. Preach a homily about the wonders of marriage and people respond happily; preach one about being single and only the single people say anything; preach one on the requirements of marriage, particularly being open to life, and people get angry. The dynamics of parish life tend towards an imbalance between the married and the single.

The neglect of single people is a problem that needs a more systematic answer directed by our pastors. In another column, Fernandez asked for “a little more recognition — a blurb in the bulletin, a priestly mention in the prayer intentions during mass, a homily or two about saints who were raised by single parents or were single parents themselves, and lastly, when speaking of families in general, recognition that single parents and their children are indeed still very much families.”

The rest of us who are married can also do something for the single people around us: Make them real friends, especially if the default setting of your life is—as it usually is—to spend your time with other married people. (You meet people at school meetings, for example, and have an instant subject of conversation, which can then continue when you run into each other after Mass. It’s a natural road to friendship and that keeps you from other roads to friendship with others.) A family is a blessing, and blessings are given us to be shared, although not in a “Hey, I’m being nice to these poor sad single people!” way.

Include single people in dinner parties and cookouts, or just have them on their own. Invite them over to watch a football game or to sit outside on a nice day. Let them know they can simply drop by. Break yourself of the habit (if you have it) of saying “We should have the Smiths and the Jones” because putting married couples together is the way you make your dinners work. Hire a babysitter to watch your single friends’ children when they come. If they live in apartments, invite them to use your washer and dryer if they need to, and to use your home when you’re away. And so on.

It’s not much, and you will gain more than you give. That’s the great thing about becoming friends: they’ll be to you not “these unmarried people,” but John and Jennifer and Wesley.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Aleteia and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

David Mills

By

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for Aleteia. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.

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  • JamesIgnatius

    As a single man, I am a Catholic nomad – not belonging to a
    particular parish, I drop into the 4:30pm vigil mass here, or the 7:30am
    morning mass there. Drop my cash in the basket (no envelopes for non-registered nomads) and roll out quietly with nary a nod after the recessional hymn and a short prayer of thanksgiving. After reading a request in the parish bulletin, I once offered my experience as a former altar boy to help in the training of the new “altar servers” at a parish I had adopted while living down in Texas – but was treated as some sort of creepy guy wanting to get near
    children – “Red Flag – what sort of single man without children wants to participate in this?” I suppose it’s understandable, but single adults really are on the periphery of parish life. I have come to accept my Catholic nomadic existence and have become comfortable in its anonymity.

  • Yes, I have James’ experience. As a divorced mom with 3 children who I put through 12 years of Catholic school, after my divorce when they were in K and 2, it became very lonely. Now that they are grown, I, too, have become a nomad. I get it. There is a huge, untapped reservoir of Catholics in our shoes who need a home. I was once told that the reason the Catholic Church doesn’t have the divorced and widowed groups (like our Protestant counterparts) is that divorce is not accepted so it would be inappropriate to have a group for us. I am annulled. Isn’t that accepted? Maybe an “annulled and widowed” group would be good. Who knows? Instead of meeting the unchurched and “civilian” dates we meet – which usually end badly – perhaps we could meet each other who share values and become those families?

  • JMC

    Peggy has hit on a definite way to evangelize those so-called “irregular” families. Groups for the divorced, divorced-and-remarried, those cohabiting, and those single parents who had their children out of wedlock, seem to me to be right in line with what Pope Francis hopes to achieve with these synods on the family.

    .

    The other difficulty is with us singles ourselves. Surrounded by families, many of us find that we have little in common with them and tend to exclude OURSELVES, because we don’t want to be the “third wheel.” Except for the handful of us that are true introverts, being single is a very real burden. For an introvert, it’s an ideal lifestyle; you get to be alone most of the time. I’m an introvert myself, so I get that. But for an extrovert, there’s really only one word to describe it: Lonely.

    .

    For the extroverted single, some churches do have singles groups. Yes, a lot of those groups are focused on finding prospective mates for their members, but that’s what the members themselves are looking for. But that leaves those who chose the single life out in the cold. And James, being looked on with suspicion when you are single, without children, and offering to help children, is not unique to men. It’s not even unique to SINGLE men. I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably one reason why our married choirmaster never had any takers for a proposed children’s choir.

    .

    No one has an answer to such problems yet. After all, that’s why we’re having these synods on the family. But it would behoove us all to remember that this was only the FIRST in a series of them. Give them time; I am sure that eventually all these issues will be addressed, if for no other reason than that the Pope himself is well aware that we are over-focused on certain aspects of the current threats to marriage and the family.
    .
    In the meantime, all we singles can do is remember that, even though those parishes full of married people don’t seem particularly welcoming to us, worshipping God is our primary reason for going to church; the social life and everything else is only secondary. So, yes, we do have to “suck it up,” but also must trust that God will give us the grace and strength to do just that.

  • John B. Nelson

    This is a very important topic and oft-neglected. And yes, the Synod’s failure to address the lives of single people is an astonishing oversight, and all the more strange in light of the celibate vocation of the attending Bishops.

    I think a large part of the answer is for Catholic parishes to adopt some sort of regular small group meetings (comprised and families and singles along with religious and preists) in which single people are enfolded and cared for alongside families. I am a former evangelical, and this is one aspect of that tradition that I confess I miss a great deal. The fact is, Catholics, even very devout ones, are not very involved in each other’s lives. We don’t seem to really care about each other in a significant way. There are a lot of reasons for this, but rather than analyzing the situation to death, let’s do something about it. The Christ Renews His Parish group is a good example of something that could help.

    Moreover, lets stop thinking of single people as having a problem to be solved, but rather as an having a great opportunity to give, and to flourish as beloved people in God’s Church.

  • Episteme

    I alternate between being given every schlep job at my home parish (as a single man, I must have so much free time, plus it’d be a shame to separate any married folks from their families during events…), but I do the same ‘fade’ when visiting other parishes. Nevertheless, I face the problem that I think many single men in the Catholic church do nowadays: we followed the rules on chastity & celibacy into our thirties or beyond, and now everyone thinks we’re either perverts or liars because we’re not publicly sleeping around* like single men are ‘supposed to’ be doing in this new era. It’s a lovely existence when brushing you off with “have you thought of becoming a priest?” is practically a compliment because it at least presumes an element of virtue…

    (*losing secular friends over that is one thing, but getting mocked in church by married Catholics for one’s virginity & chastity is a real head-scratcher and a real sign of how coupling-focused the community is)

  • kirk

    It’s been over 40 years since I divorced. My reasons didn’t seem to matter, though it was to prevent my children and I from having the further trauma of an abusive spouse/dad. There were many times when the scarlet letter “D” was featured in the Sunday homily and I chafed under that. But, in some ways I was fortunate to have made many friendships across the spectrum of married, single, divorced, and the never married, and that made things brighter for me. Yet, these many years later I still wonder what it would have been like to have a happier family unit unmarred by abuse and eventual divorce. I think I would have tried to be more inclusive of those less fortunate. I thank God that I have friends who are inclusive, but there are many singles who remain on the fringes of parish life, isolated and sometimes very lonely.

  • Katie Kellmurray

    I think there is such a high value and emphasis placed on vocation that it can leave those of us who are single feeling as though God has not called us…. or perhaps has forgotten us. And so we – I – can feel that the Church has forgotten or abandoned me as well, and that there is almost a sense of outsider-ness – like there is somehow something wrong with being single.

    While I appreciate this article, I think it still reflects some of the blinders the Church has on toward single people. It focuses on singles – who are divorced or widowed or for whatever reason have children and are therefore “a family unit.” I am none of the above. I live alone. I am not in a romantic relationship – sexual or otherwise. Am I not “a family unit?” And the “singles” type events that I have found available in the area where I live are generally young adult, not even technically singles. I am not really a young adult anymore and don’t have any particular desire to be a late 30-something with the post college 20-something group, generally speaking. I am trying to be more involved in my Parish but I’m newer to the area so I don’t know a lot of people. I sit alone at Mass. I am trying to find volunteer opportunities but I work full time and travel to be with my parents and help them, which limits what and how much I can do as well.

    Lastly, I will agree that it can be hard being a single person with all of the family, marriage, husband/wife/kid talk and not have anything to contribute, which can lead me to avoid those conversations and situations somewhat. But it’s also hard because my friends with families generally still have fairly young children, who take much of their time, energy and focus. That makes our relationships fairly one-sided. I do not fault them for this. Their number 1 priority and responsibility is to those little bodies. But it does make it hard to maintain and want to further and pursue those friendships when it’s not terribly balanced or fulfilling on my end. That’s probably not fair on my part but it is a reality in the sort of middle-aged single life in which I find myself!

  • Kathleen Scotti

    I’m an observant, single, Catholic. After Sunday mass I go to a friend’s Protestant church for fellowship in their church hall. From the get go I was welcomed. Everyone is welcome , married, single, widowed, divorced, elderly, and everyone speaks to each other. So unlike the Catholic Church where everyone leaves after mass. RC church lacks but sorely needs an easy type of fellowship where everyone feels like they belong and has an opportunity to get to know each other.

  • Tara

    Amen and Amen, could not agree more with this as a fellow ex Evangelical, I think the fact is our Evangelical brothers and sisters are more “Catholic” in the element of small group meetings like JBN mentions. I’ve been to many in protestant churches over the years (I’ve moved around alot here in Australia and also in England) and it really needs to be encouraged and revived in the Catholic Church big time. I believe a Catholic version of Alpha with Mass and the Sacraments and on top of this more Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament needs to be praying for this to be adopted and integrated into HMC one and true. I am unmarried, I don’t want to be a problem to be solved, but I want to be cared about which I currently do not feel. I had hoped to avoid needing to go to another denomination again to get small group support but it looks like I am going to have to action along with Mass. Would rather a Catholic one anyday.

  • Tara

    Another good article on Catholic singles that I relate to and would like to see actioned. http://www.catholicregister.org/columns/item/17159-catholic-singles-the-forgotten-among-the-faithful

  • theLordisOne

    Interestingly enough I went online to look up fruits of the mysteries of the rosary, and came across this site – very glad I did, I thought I was one of the VERY few single Catholics who felt like a fly on the wall. But, even after reading the entries here, you all sound very young! I am 68 years young with grown children, 1 of whom lives in my area with 4 kids. However, I hardly ever see my son, or his kids because they are so busy being a “family”. My other 2 children are in separate states. Being on a fixed income, it’s difficult to go places and do much. I have joined various parish groups, but it’s still very difficult to find ‘single friends’ who are my age, yet have not become sedentary and/or spend every waking moment taking care of grandkids or leaving for vacations of one type or another. I had to attend Catechist classes as I taught Faith Formation for a year, and what did one of the speakers talk about? Yep, vocations! Did it include “single” as a vocation?? No Way! Did I speak to the guy after his presentation? Sure did! I heard him again the next year.– Same talk – still no mention of “single” being a vocation!! I, like you all, sit in church alone. So, I joined the choir. During the fall & winter that is good I’m sitting with the choir. Summer comes – I’m back by myself. I was a member of a Pentecostal church for a while and they had lots of things going on – for everyone. I still have good friends who are Pentecostals and/or Evangelicals and that is who I do most out-of-church thing with. It’s pretty darn sad. I agree with all of you. I do say though, that it seems to be easier to be a single Catholic man, than a single Catholic woman – especially over 65! God help us and bless us everyone who left sitting on the sidelines in loneliness because don’t see us as a “part” of the blessings, no matter what age we are.

  • Inaton

    I’m 60 and a happy single. Perhaps because I come from a country where family and friendship is valued or perhaps because I am part of a Church association of single and married persons where there are lively exchanges of viewpoints and social activities or perhaps because I have two other single sisters, I have not felt the kind of loneliness you talk about. But yes, there have been odd moments at work and among married friends. Many still think I am on the prowl for a partner and now that I have recently retired, many encourage me to go on a trip where I just might bump into one. They can’t seem to understand that I am happy where I am and that I am single at this age because it has become my choice. Singles who live chaste lives according to Church teachings enrich family lives much in the same way that happy families enrich single lives.

  • theLordisOne

    Katie, even though you are much younger than I am, I totally agree with what you are posting here – especially with the first paragraph. The value on ‘vocations’ and the message that it sends to singles – no matter how one becomes, or is single, is that we are not valuable to the parish – or the church overal, especially women. Yes, forgotten or abandoned and – as being in many ways an outsider. I don’t think, they think there is something wrong with us, they just don’t think of us at all. We (singles) just don’t ‘fit into their mold’. – after all they may unconsciously ‘assume’ that God has not called us. We exist in a vacuum, apart from the “truly called”. Hmmmm, does leper come to mind? 🙂 I noticed that a retreat house in my vicinity finally had a retreat weekend for Catholics –ages 30 – 50. That leaves me out again! Makes me wonder about what value is placed on us singles who are over 50 – and not yet dead!

  • theLordisOne

    If one is fortunate enough to have a “Christ Renews His Parish” group in their parish, it sounds great. Don’t have that anywhere around here that I ever seen.

  • theLordisOne

    Agree whole-heartedly, mostly. I don’t get the feeling that the Church thinks of single people having a problem to be solved. I get the feeling that the Church doesn’t even think about single people.

  • DavidMillsPatheos

    No, it really doesn’t focus on those who have children. I’m sorry if it gave that impression, but I was thinking as I was writing of several people I know in the same situation as you. I specifically spoke of people without children as a kind of “family unit” the Extraordinary Synod should have addressed.

  • Cathy Cash

    Thank you for this article! Anyone interested in another interesting piece on singles and the Synod, just singles in general, check out the following link: http://thehiddenfaithful.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/a-single-voice/

  • Liberty

    Thank you!!! I wish everyone I know could read this and more on this topic. We single people are so ignored by Catholics in general and it really hurts. We are just as much a part of the Church as married people with children.

  • Liberty

    I totally agree. It started out about single people and then focused mainly on divorced/single parents/widowed. Not the same thing at all.

  • Liberty

    Do you mean the church giving to single people or single people giving to the church? Single people do give to the church and I usually see articles about how single people can feel more welcome at Mass saying “oh you have more time to volunteer and do things at the parish!” As though we’re just here to be servants and never to be given love in return. We still go home to empty houses and feel lonely.

  • Liberty

    I don’t agree that it’s a shame to “separate any married folks from their families.” They have a duty to the church too and should model that charitable spirit for their families.

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