From a young age, Catholics are taught to pray about and discern their vocations – whether they're called to marriage, to the religious life, to the priesthood, or consecrated single life.
This can leave the lay single person feeling that they are in a vocational limbo of sorts, and it's become a topic of much heated and emotional debate in the Catholic blogosphere: have these people missed their vocation? Is the lay single state, chosen or by default, a vocation?
But actually, at the end of the day – does it matter?
Fr. Ben Hasse is a vocations director for the Diocese of Marquette, Mich. He said addressing the topic of singleness in the Church can be difficult because of the emotions surrounding the issue.
“I have quite a few friends who would like to be married, so there's a much more emotional investment in the question because there's more people who find themselves single” rather than having specifically chosen it, he said.
Recognizing the emotional weight of the topic, Fr. Hasse noted that there are many aspects to addressing the question of vocation and singleness that need to be taken into account, and that it can be difficult – and dangerous – to make generalizations about a population in the Church that is actually very diverse.
Being specific about singleness
Fr. Hasse said that he has found it's helpful as a pastor to approach singleness very specifically – whether it's a college student who hopes to marry someday, or a widow who lost her husband last month, being single encompasses a wide variety of people and circumstances.
“Everybody will be single for at least part of their life. Nobody is born as a priest or married to someone or a consecrated religious, so everyone will pass through being single,” he said.
“It's important to distinguish between people who are single because that's kind of where you're at when you're 16, versus someone who has really felt God calling them to give their life in service to the Church as a single person,” or various other circumstances.
For example, a single 19-year-old college student is probably not necessarily living a vocation of singleness in any settled way, Fr. Hasse said, but a person in their 40s who finds joy in serving Christ in their everyday circumstances of work and life “is not someone I would say lacks a vocation.”
“It would be different from the way we usually use the word because it wouldn't be defined, and made concrete by vows or promises,” he said.
“But the single accountant or school teacher could certainly live their life and see the work of their hands as something they're offering to God, and live that in a very spiritually fruitful way, and I wouldn't say – now here's a person without a vocation.”
Your vocation is given at baptism
Jason Coito, Coordinator of Young Adult Ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told CNA that most of the debates surrounding singleness and vocation rely “on a very narrow definition of vocation, or confuses the term with what we refer to as 'states in life.'”
He said when we become fixated on discerning our state in life, referred to in the Church as the primary vocation, “...we become so focused on the ranking of them, rather than looking at each day or the bigger picture and saying, here are all of these components of my life, now how am I called to live the promise of my baptism and of my life, and how do these things work together?”
It can be helpful instead to refocus these debates and conversations on the universal vocation to holiness that each Christian receives at their baptism, Coito said.
“I think this helpfully reframes the conversation and then asks us, 'How is God calling me to make a response to Him and to my brothers and sisters from within the state in life in which I find myself?'”
This respects every vocation, because it's a question anyone can answer on any given day in their life, regardless of their state in life, he said.
“You do have a vocation. All baptized Catholics are called to live their lives as disciples of Jesus. This is the foundational call of our lives as Catholics,” he said.
“If you feel deeply called to get married, and you have prayerfully discerned and confirmed this call, then until you meet the person you feel called to get married to, you continue to live out your baptismal call, open to the people and circumstances that God puts in front of you each day. For those who are married, we do pretty much the same thing, except that we do this out of the sacramental relationship we have with our spouse,” he said.
In Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI wrote about the universal call to holiness each Christian has:
“Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.”
Fr. Hasse reiterated the importance of the baptismal call to holiness, and said that this call is not something to “settle for,” but rather should be the primary focus of our lives as Christians.
“The call to holiness is not some second-string operation,” he said.
“It's not like – wow I really wish I had something important to work towards, but since I don't, sanctity will have to tide me over until the beatific vision.”
“So I think a reappropriation of the universal call to holiness, which is deeply, profoundly significant, it's the one that matters in a sense, and we're all called to that,” he said.
The big lie: You are incomplete until you've made vows
Coito noted that one of the worst patterns of thinking that a Catholic can fall into when thinking about vocation is to believe that they are somehow less-than or incomplete until they are married, or are a priest or in a religious order.
When he taught high school religion, Coito said he would ask his students to recall the famous line from Jerry Macquire, when he tells his love interest (played by Renee Zellweger): “You complete me.”
“I would always tell them that from a Catholic perspective, that's ridiculous. It wasn't as though before marriage you were incomplete, or that a priest before his ordination is incomplete. God already made us whole and entire,” he said.
“We've been given everything as human beings that God intends us to have, so to begin to think of ourselves as somehow unfinished...we can joyfully be living out our vocation already right now.”
Part of this mentality has seeped in from the culture, he said, which tends to romanticize love and to view marriage as another achievement or milestone in life, rather than as a sacrament.
“I think it's important to address the mentality that if I'm not married or in a community or ordained that I'm this sort of 'Catholic arrested development' or 'suspended animation,'” he said.
The belief that marriage or religious life will also magically make us completely fulfilled is also a mentality that can set people up for disappointment, he noted.
“It ends up being a Disney sort of (mentality) of happily ever after, but it's much more Paschal mystery than happily ever after,” he said.
Finding fulfillment: It's about self-gift
The reasons that there are more single people in the Church now than in other times in recent history are many and varied – an emphasis on education, a culture that values individualism, higher rates of divorce and economic factors are just some of the many reasons there are more singles in the pews.
But this doesn't mean that human nature has changed – we are still made for love, self-gift and service, Fr. Ben Hasse said.
“Trying to schedule events in our lives that will make us happy at some point that doesn't really work,” he said. “Happiness is richest and fullest kind of as a by-product of gifts of love and of service.”
“There's almost a way where you can attend to the basic dynamics of seeking to live a life of holiness, and that's the actually the path that's going to leave you more and more disposed to receive his call,” he said.
In particular, acts of service can be a key way to find fulfillment regardless of one's state in life, he said.
“Look for opportunities to give of yourself,” he said. “It's also a good way to meet other people who have a similar disposition...doing that has very real potential to fill one's heart, and leaves you more and more receptive to (God's) call.”
Soley utilizing acts of service as a way to find a spouse would be unhealthy, Fr. Hasse added, but serving alongside like-minded people, and finding others who share your values is a good way to find authentic community, in whatever form that may take.
What the Church has to say about single people
Pope John Paul II, who wanted to be known as 'the Pope of the family', wrote in his familial document “Familiaris Consortio” that those without a family must be able to find their family within the Church. In fact, the entire final section of this document is dedicated to single people.
This is a subject with which John Paul II would have been intimately familiar – by the age of 20, all of his immediate family on earth had passed away, and he surrounded himself with good friends that essentially became his family.
In the document, he wrote: “For those who have no natural family the doors of the great family which is the Church - the Church which finds concrete expression in the diocesan and the parish family, in ecclesial basic communities and in movements of the apostolate - must be opened even wider. No one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who 'labor and are heavy laden.'”
The Catechism of the Catholic also recognizes “the great number of single persons who, because of the particular circumstances in which they have to live – often not of their choosing – are especially close to Jesus' heart and therefore deserve the special affection and active solicitude of the Church, especially of pastors.” (CCC 1658).
Practical advice from single Catholics
Still, it can sometimes be difficult for single people to know where they fit in the Church. Parishes are often structured around family life, which can make it challenging for single people to find community.
Judy Keane is a 40-something single Catholic and author of “Single and Catholic,” a book in which she interviewed numerous single Catholics of a wide variety of ages, circumstances and backgrounds about their experiences in the Church.
“Mother Teresa once said that the greatest poverty is loneliness, and feeling discounted by society,” Keane said.
“So I would say (to married people in the parish): approach single people, connect with them, take that initiative to introduce yourself, not make them feel like because they don't have a spouse and children in the pew with them that they're no less a member of the parish community,” she said.
MaryBeth Bonacci is a Catholic author and speaker who has often written on the topic of being a single Catholic. She said she loves it when people in her parish help her feel included in their families and lives.
“Some people would say, 'Oh well she wouldn't want to go to a 1-year-old's birthday party.' Yeah I would!” she said. “We don't have our exciting singles lives that you think we have, I'm at home eating cottage cheese and watching Simpsons reruns, it's not that exciting.”
Bonacci said she's also had a friend at her parish who told her she was invited to her family's dinner any time. And she didn't wait to make good on the invitation – she followed up with Bonacci every day.
“She would call me every day at 3:00 and say, am I setting a place for you? And I didn't go every night...but she actually called every day, and said if you want to come, we'll set a place for you, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciated that.”
She added that she appreciates when parishes make an effort to create a cohesive community, rather than always segregating people into groups according to their states in life.
Both Bonacci and Keane said that they especially have noticed that there are many single elderly Catholics who are alone, whether they've never been married or have since lost their spouse.
“If you're having a family Sunday dinner, why not try to befriend an elderly single person who may have lost their spouse and say we're having our family dinner, would you like to join us?” Keane said.
It's also important to remember that God acts in unexpected says, and oftentimes frustration with one's state in life stems from a place of thinking about vocation or God's will too rigidly, Fr. Hasse noted.
“If I'm talking to someone who says well most of my friends seem to have found their vocation and I haven't, what do I do? I usually say man, the saints are people that God caught in all kinds of unexpected situations and places,” Fr. Hasse said.
“So there's lots of precedent for thinking God has passed me by or hasn't answered my prayers” but then he shows up in unexpected ways, he said.