Paying Attention to Single Catholics

shutterstock_140359276Can I tell you how excited I am about this?

As many of you know, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life talking to teenagers (and their parents) about love, relationships and chastity. I began that work because I thought it was important, and (back in those days) nobody else was doing it.

I get excited about doing things that need to be done in the Church, but nobody else is doing.

Well, these days you can’t open a church door without hitting an aspiring young chastity speaker. This is fabulous news for me, as I am more than happy to pass on the mantle to the next generation. I’m working to shift the focus of my teen work away from full-time speaking and toward resource development to support all of these young aspiring chastity speakers.

And that will leave me plenty of time to focus on what needs to be done in the Church now, but nobody else is doing: Paying attention to single adult Catholics.

I’ll admit, I have a personal stake in this. I am a single adult Catholic. And the more years I live as a single adult Catholic, the more I realize that there is a problem here.

The problem is that no one seems to know we exist. Parishes are built around families. Classes, activities and programs are generally aimed at kids and/or couples. Women’s groups assume all of the women are wives and mothers, as men’s groups do for husbands and fathers. (Have you ever gone to one of these and wondered “Is it even okay that I’m here?”) Even the population of a parish is determined by the number of families, which is why, I suspect, that so few single adults register in a parish.

God bless families. They certainly need all the help they can get these days, and I would never want to take away a single program that is designed to support them. But when parishes focus exclusively on families, they risk alienating a growing demographic within their ranks — the unmarried.

Polling data I’ve found indicates that single adults make up anywhere from 25 to 50% of the US population. Look around your parish. Are 25 to 50% of the people you see unmarried? Probably not.

It’s not all the parishes’ fault. They can’t be expected to acknowledge what they don’t see. And, as a rule, they don’t see us. I can always recognize the single people at Mass. They’re the ones who sit in the back and cut out immediately afterward. They don’t get involved. They haven’t found their “place” in parish life.

Oh, sure, they throw us the occasional “young adult group.” These groups are notoriously difficult to launch and hold together, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the mentality seems to be, “Okay, all of you singles. Why don’t you all go hang out in that room over there, and then maybe you’ll pair off and come out married, and then we’ll know what to do with you.”

Not particularly helpful.

There is also the “young adult” problem. The idea of these groups seems to have been to provide a “bridge” for the years between the youth group and the marriage prep class. They’re based on the assumption that there will be an upper age limit beyond which everyone will be married and will no longer need such a group. Initially that was 30. Then 35. Now I’m seeing more and more groups classify themselves as “18 to 40.”

What? Forty year olds have 18 year olds. They’re their parents, not their buddies.

Regardless of the upper age limit, the “young adult” model leaves something to be desired. It basically says that during the years between 35 and the senior casino bus, you’re on your own.

So, dear reader, at this point I’m guessing you fall into one of two camps. You’re either saying “Yes, this is my experience. Thank God someone is acknowledging it.” Or you’re saying “Oh, no. Please tell me this column isn’t going to turn into a monthly complaint session about being single.”

Okay, this isn’t going to be a monthly complaint session about being single. Not by a really, really long shot.

I debated about this. I really did. (Ask Brian Barcaro, who has been waiting for this column for far too long!) Part of me wanted to start out on a very happy, positive note. Because I’m a very happy, positive person with a lot of happy, positive things to say about single life. And I will say them all. But I’ve learned that if we jump right into happy and positive without acknowledging the reality and the areas where we struggle, we wind up with that shallow, platitudinous “happy” that so many of us have grown to detest. (“Your life hasn’t gone the way you planned. So just shut up and be happy about it already.”)

Single can be good. It can be very, very good. Not in a “we can afford a nicer car because we don’t have to spend money on kids” kind of way. More of a “This isn’t the way I had planned things, and I need to turn to You, O Lord, in a very profound and personal way in order to deal with it” kind of a way.

The Church on the parish level, so far, hasn’t done a lot to help us do that. Not because they don’t care, but because they don’t know we’re here.

But I’m about to change that. We’re about to change that.

Because we get really excited about doing things that nobody else is doing in the Church.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on CE on Aug 31, 2006. 

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  • anonymous

    Oh, they do know we’re here. It’s just the path of least resistance to ignore. That is not love.

    Where is the real love of neighbor? I suspect it’s another one of those ‘not on this side of Heaven.’ It is scandalizing when sharing a handshake in Peace with a family and getting to the husband only to have him turn his head away so as not to offend his wife.

    i cannot convey the depth of hurt when I get a dirty look before, during, and/or after Mass. So many times. I’ve learned to keep distance from the Priests. All it takes is one parishioner to observe an innocent exchange in smile, a greeting or an extra moment of time talking with the Priest. Oh yes, and it’s the single woman who becomes the evil one. If i was not so in love with Jesus, i would have left the church by now. But, HE comes first… no matter who turns their face away or how many dirty looks i get. Doesn’t matter whether it’s me that walks into a new church after i’ve moved or a new priest that walks in the door. My peace is in our Lord and i am there to worship. Thanks be to God.

  • anonymous

    Oh, they do know we’re here. It’s just the path of least resistance to ignore. That is not love.

    Where is the real love of neighbor? I suspect it’s another one of those ‘not on this side of Heaven.’ It is scandalizing when sharing a handshake in Peace with a family and getting to the husband only to have him turn his head away so as not to offend his wife.

    i cannot convey the depth of hurt when I get a dirty look before, during, and/or after Mass. So many times. I’ve learned to keep distance from the Priests. All it takes is one parishioner to observe an innocent exchange in smile, a greeting or an extra moment of time talking with the Priest. Oh yes, and it’s the single woman who becomes the evil one. If i was not so in love with Jesus, i would have left the church by now. But, HE comes first… no matter who turns their face away or how many dirty looks i get. Doesn’t matter whether it’s me that walks into a new church after i’ve moved or a new priest that walks in the door. My peace is in our Lord and i am there to worship. Thanks be to God.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    I hear you on some of this, but the pressure and fear of scandal for being a single woman is one frustration I’m glad i don’t know. I only ever have to worry when I befriend a young nun (realistically, any sister under the age of 60), something that is always in the back of my mind.

    As a single Catholic I do sometimes feel out of place. In some ways, I have been blessed that some random family always seems to sort of “adopt” me; they’re the ones who invite me to places and try to keep me included. However, and I hate to say this, the closest friendships I have are not ones I meet in a parish. As a single man, though, it is very, very frustrating.

    As the author said, I don’t think it’s malicious on anyone’s part on the parish level. I know many, many denominations have struggled with this. However, it is awesome that you still have faith and love strong enough to push forward. Everyone has their struggle, and the single life can be one of loneliness but it is one burden that I find lighter when I’m before God in prayer. Every Mass I attend by myself never feels like a lonely activity once I’m in the pew.

    Cheers to you for your fight and I hope you keep it up!

  • waynergf

    Huh. As a single male Catholic I never felt left out in our parish activities, or at Mass. We have over 100 ministries going strong…I got involved first in RCIA, then in Choir (and as a cantor), then in weekly Bible classes, then in weekly Perpetual Adoration.

  • Ohio Annie

    waynergf, I agree with your response. I am against the very existence of “young adult groups” at all. You don’t mature by hanging out with people who are your age or younger. You mature by getting involved in the normal life of the parish. I am all for abolishing these 20-something groups. This age-sorting is terribly damaging in school and it is in the parish also.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Very awesome that your parish has so many activities to be involved in! A lot of parishes barely have anything for families to do, much less the adult singles. I know it’s a common experience for a parish to completely empty right after communion without even a coffee hour after mass.

    For me, I found that getting involved in Knights of Columbus and just raising a hand when volunteers are needed is a good way to get involved and make a parish home a real home. As an introvert, that’s hard but one has to do what one has to do. But I try not to universalize subjective experience, so I know there are other struggles.

    Cheers to you and thanks for the comment.

  • Jessica

    At the age of 29 I came back to the Church (I was really never “in” the Church – baptized only then mother left). It was attending a young adult’s group at a parish that I came back through. There was a dynamic priest and young people who were on fire for their faith. I was shocked!

  • Kevin Bailey

    47 and married since I was 20. But what you describe is my problem! Why is it my problem you may ask, because these singles are part of the body I belong to. I care because we are all in this together. I care because if I don’t my parish is only going to have a larger vacancy of “life” within it because these people will be more inclined to just leave the church all together. I cannot stand for that! I need my body to be whole if I can keep it that way. Our parish also needs to better recognize and support the faith, community, and life needs of single adults. I am very interested to hear what ideas and thoughts you have about this, particularly because you are a part of that part of my “body”. I may not be the ear but I will be listening!

  • JMC

    You are very lucky, then. But “stepping out,” as you suggest, is far more easily said than done. I joined our parish choir, and immediately noticed a divide between the other members and me: We had nothing in common, because when rehearsal was over, they all sat around, men and women alike, and talked about their kids and grandkids, and didn’t know what to talk to me about, so they didn’t bother, and I sat there like a lump. The only level I could communicate with them on was talking about when my siblings and I were kids ourselves (I’m one of five kids), but I only tried that once or twice, because I could tell they really weren’t interested in that. Yeah, they loosened up a bit as the years went on and they got to know me a little better, but that divide was still there. I tried going to adult “Sunday school” classes, and they were all geared to the married folks, to the point that I actually felt excluded, and yes, like I didn’t belong there. And people just don’t know what to do with a sixty-year-old single. When I was younger, I tried those “young adult” ministries, and all they talked about was dating. I had already decided to take private vows of perpetual virginity, so dating was a non-issue for me. In the end I felt so extremely out of place, and the others were so uncomfortable around me, as if I had some kind of contagious disease, that I gave it up.
    If you have never felt this way in any of your parish ministries, then I’m very happy for you, and thank God for your sake. But while any parish may have enough ministries that there should be a place for everyone, those ministries are made up of *people,* and people have their own foibles, the primary one being that they really can’t handle someone who doesn’t fit the usual mold.

  • JMC

    Oh, don’t I hear you! My best friend and I have shared a house for over twenty-five years. I know it is highly unusual for two women to be able to live together for that long without trying to tear each other’s eyes out, but we’ve managed it. Maybe it’s because neither one of us dates, so there’s no competition; or maybe because we’re so close we see each other more as sisters than anything else; I don’t know. At any rate, we’re both Catholics, and since I can’t drive (poor eyesight), neither one of us is ever seen without the other. You can guess the assumption they all make about us. They hide it well, until it actually comes up in conversation, and one of us mentions that we’re *not* gay; then you can see the relief in their eyes. Sometimes its actually touching, because you can tell they were really worried about us and the state of our souls, but most of the time it’s just the okay-I-don’t-have-to-watch-what-I-say-around-them kind of relief.
    People being people, and always uncertain about how to deal with someone who’s “different” in any way, I imagine certain difficulties in relating to single adults, especially those who have chosen to remain single without entering the religious life, will always be with us. I try to remember to take it as an opportunity to offer a sacrifice for the Holy Souls, and just swallow my frustration. To add a little levity to the matter, it helps that I’m an introvert by nature anyway. ;D

  • Stuart

    Interesting article. I too felt that way as a single Catholic in the past. The problem is that we (I say we as a former single Catholic) expect the Church to do something for us. Instead, we should mobilize and say, “What can we do for the parish?”

  • Lee

    I have found this to be of much importance. I have never thought about it before. I do
    understand the frustrations of feeling as outsiders. There are church members who forget to be open, kind and giving, and that can keep any one from feeling welcomed within their own parish. SAD. But the truth is, we are in church, in the presence of Jesus; that is where our concentration should be. Each parish member is encouraged to use their talents, so if you have something you want, please take the first step to make it happen and bring comfort to others like yourself.Life is full of challenges, and I find the biggest is to step out of ourselves to help ourselves.

  • anonymous

    Good question, Stuart. We can live our faith. That is all we can do, and God, i know, does the rest.

  • Susan Walker

    Great article, Mary Beth! I think the other thing to consider is that a good percentage of the single adults are also parents-without-partners – and talk about an unseen population! We’re not “single” in terms of being just one person (childcare arrangements/costs greatly impact availability and participation in ministry and social events), but we’re often also not considered families because the other spouse is MIA.

    Where is a faithful Catholic over the age of 40 who either has a declaration of Nullity or has never been married supposed to go to meet other faithful Catholics? How much more complicated it is when there are children to consider when trying to meet a potential mate.

    Yes, yes, I realize there is Ave Maria Singles, Catholic Match and other online sites, but it’s not the same as having real world opportunities to meet people and see if chemistry exists. And as you suggested, no, I don’t want to be hanging out with the under 35 crowd because I’m certain my future husband is not in that group. It would be nice if several parishes could come together and offer a dance or something for the single adults to meet and mingle without suggesting the single mom be the one to organize it.

  • Don

    There must be an awareness that God has a plan for everyone to build up his Church and not everyone is called to be married. When we do what God has called us to do is when we will be most fulfilled, most happy. Just my opinion, but many seem to seek marriage as a type of status that legitimizes them in the eyes of society. Instead, your personal value comes from being redeemed by Christ, not by how nice your spouse and family are, not how great your job is, etc. I guess what I’m saying is help adult singles to find what God wants them to do for Him because they can do things for Christ that married people cannot.

  • Ohio Annie

    As a never married female professional pushing 60 I feel much more accepted by Catholics than Protestants as Catholicism has a long history of accepting celibacy among the laity. Never has a Catholic tried to match me to someone or imply that my never having married is in any way wrong, contrasted with what some Protestants tried before I converted.

    I looked around for a parish with a high percentage of professionals where I knew I would not stick out so much. This was easy to do in an urban area. If I were in southern Ohio (part of the Southern Baptist Bible Belt) where there is one Catholic parish per county it would be daunting.

  • Ohio Annie

    Yes, I have the same rumor about me but don’t let it bother me. My parish has more professionals who are used to women who are married to their careers. However, I remind people that I am less of a threat than a young married woman since I never learned how to carry out a seduction and a romantic relationship would mess up my career life anyway! Just because a woman is married does not mean she is necessarily faithful to her husband. And sometimes this business of trying to get close to the power structure by befriending the priest gets out of hand, the drive to be seen as special is so strong in some people. I have seen it happen many times.

  • Susan Walker

    You are right on, Don.
    Still, there are also a huge number of us singles 40+ who know we have a vocation to marriage but cannot find suitable marriage partners who are willing to commit. I think our Holy Father recognizes this as an issue because he suggested people commit to something/someone as a resolution for 2014.

    I don’t need a husband to be fulfilled and happy, but I need one to fulfill my vocation to marriage.

  • pnyikos

    You are leaving out the needs of single young adults who want to get married. How are they to do so when we deprive them of opportunities to meet in a setting where at least the others are somewhere close to their own age?

    Just a few days ago there was an article in Catholic Exchange which really spoke to the issue of how we are letting single teenagers AND young adults down:

  • pnyikos

    Alas, living our faith is not the same thing as mobilization. In the parishes of Columbia, SC where we live, with a metropolitan area population of about 300,000 churchgoing Catholics are still a small minority. To make matters worse, in our parishes there is a dearth of young single adults involved in the church in the first place, and the very few who come together regularly are scattered in six parishes.

    I get the impression sometimes that the majority of young adults out of college only start caring about parish life when they get married.

  • anonymous

    Hi pnyikos, i would be most interested in your of explanation of living our faith. Would you be willing to share it? I can see your impression regarding the young adults. However, if you take that one step further, it is the living and active Christ centered family that contains foundational passing, proclaiming, living of one’s faith. does that make sense?

    It is HE who does it, not us. There is unfathomable contemplation and peace in living one’s faith.

  • pnyikos

    I am happily married, with four lovely daughters, and we do live our faith, both at home in the parish, where I have been a lector for many years. But it is for my daughters that I am concerned; they are all single and the oldest is the one on whose personal experience I rely for what I wrote.

  • LauraP

    This is wonderful. As a single, adult Catholic, I feel as if I am seen as, “Your prince charming is still out there, hang in there!,” or I am asked, “Are you dating anyone??” It’s as if the expected vocation is marriage and novenas will be said so Mr. Made For Me By God will come walking through the door. After much prayer and peace, I am convicted of my single vocation.
    After reading some of the posts, I definitely understand those who struggle. My parish is small. We don’t have 100 ministries to choose from. We are very different from a metropolitan area church. We have, maybe, 10 ministries to choose from. Some meet during the day, I work during the day. Some are filled with older, married people. Not that there can’t be a connection with someone who is older and married, but there is nothing like connecting with someone who is living the same life situation. I don’t run after children all day, I don’t go home to a husband, I often feel alienated by groups where everyone else is paired off. Where do I fit in?
    There is the “responsibility” of each person to venture out – we can’t expect everything to be done for us. Each person has to know his/herself. What am I comfortable with? How willing am I to go beyond my comfort zone? Sometimes, you just have to take the plunge, as unpleasant as it may be in the beginning.

  • Pah

    I kind of agree with the writer when she says the Church seems not to know we exist. This is not an issue that is pertinent to the US alone but rather a global issue. I wonder if the single adults will even feature in the Extra Ordinary Synod called by Pope Francis to take place in October 2014. We should, because we are part of the Family.

  • Amanda

    Maybe if I didn’t feel like such a freak for being single (both from my family, my friends, and the Church) then this would not have hurt my relationship with God so much. Quite frankly, I’m mad at Him. I wish I could say I wasn’t, but I am. (And yes, I’ve tried to pray about it and blah, blah, blah.) I go to mass with my family but there is this huge great divide between me and God right now. I hope your programs have some success.