No Euphemism for Singles Ministry

[Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a five-part series on “Renewing the Church and Transforming the World.” Click here to read the first article and second article.]

In my travels across the country speaking on the topic of single life, I often take side trips to interview people about what they are looking for in relationships. I have done this on the campuses of secular and Catholic universities, and in the entertainment centers of major cities. The answers vary but little. Though their actions may appear to contradict it, everyone aspires to pretty much the same thing. Everyone says something like, “I’m looking for someone I really trust, someone who will care about me for who I am, someone I know I can count on.”

Our Creator designed us from the beginning to long for something which is not serial at all. What we long for in our deepest being is absolute and irrevocable mutual self-giving, what Pope John Paul II described as the mutual interpenetration of the gift. At the heart of our crisis as a society is a loss of understanding of what it means to be sexual creatures who image our Creator by giving ourselves to each other in a life-giving union that binds us together as “one flesh.”

Here we begin to see the way out of this crisis; we begin to see how to lead singles to the fulfillment of our truest desires, and thence how to lead our culture away from isolation and back to an experience of shared love, family love, and common good.

We will now examine how this happens in practice, what must be done within the Church in order to bring about a new dawn of ministering to America’s 100 million singles, and a new day of thriving marriages and vocations to consecrated life.

First, we must face the fact that the modern Catholic Church has offered almost nothing to her tens of millions of singles. We must understand why that is, and then we can see how to change it.

The simple fact is that society has recently begun and is now racing away at a breakneck pace from everything the Church knows and understands best, which is family life, and toward what the Church knows and understands least, which is single life and the values which lie at its core. Given both the newness and the nature of the changes underway, it is very understandable that the Church would have been caught unawares. The Church certainly did not cause these problems, and they are in fact exactly the problems which we could expect the Catholic Church to be least prepared to face.

Heretofore, the word “single” has been whispered, if spoken at all, in many parts of the Catholic Church. Most parishes and dioceses have no personnel involved in “singles” ministry at all. Pastors and bishops tend to think of singles ministries as meat markets or hook-up joints, or just try not to think of them at all. I travel the country widely as a speaker on these topics and (though there may perhaps be some) I’m not aware of any one person in America drawing a full-time salary for ministering specifically to Catholic singles — this in spite of the fact that there will soon be 100 million singles in America.

In the Catholic Church we often attempt to avoid speaking of singles by using the euphemism of “young adults” or YAs. Young Adult Ministry (YAM) is a grand thing. Some of my favorite ministries are Young Adult Ministries. I owe more than words can describe to the Young Adult Ministry in Atlanta, and to its founder. Atlanta’s YAM may be the best de facto singles ministry in America today.

But YAM, by definition, in its name and in its charter, explicitly intends not to minister to singles as singles with needs specific to that state in life. YAM was created as YAM in part because the single life being lived around us is so weird, so antithetical to Catholic family values, that singles ministry itself has been stigmatized in the Church. The terms “singles” and “singles ministry” are simply not spoken in polite circles in the American Catholic Church.

Young Adult Ministry focuses, by definition, on those of a given age, typically 20-35. One unintended effect of the popular usage of the “young adult” euphemism, however, has been to keep leaders in the Church from realizing that many, almost half, of the single adults in America are older than the target age of these ministries. For these tens of millions of singles the attempted euphemism of Young Adult Ministry serves only to explicitly exclude them from all of the programs offered in their area which could meet their needs.

While YAMs are doing FANTASTIC, often heroic work, and 95%-99% of the attendees at most YAM programs are single, YAM simply can’t work as a euphemism for singles ministry. It leaves out nearly half of the people, and it very purposefully intends not to identify the specific charisms and needs of those in the single life. I LOVE YAM. YAM is wonderful. But YAM has been asked to do what it simply cannot do in attempting to substitute for singles ministry. YAM must not substitute for, but work together with singles ministries.

Dave Sloan writes and speaks across the country on God of Desire: From Dating to Courtship to Paradise. Dave has appeared on many radio and television programs, including CNN News and EWTN's Life on the Rock. His Twelve Principles Program shows how to begin every relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ, who can discover the wonder of one another without fear while growing ever closer to the God of Desire.

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