On a recent spring evening, I parked my truck in the last available spot along my city block. Cars lined both sides of the street; balloons tied to porch railings bobbed in the breeze as families chattered and took pictures of graduating teens. Neighbors crossed each others’ lawns to join the various gatherings, which had become one large celebration: grandparents, children, parents and pets mingled in a kind of tableau of family life.
A few blocks away, my parish was preparing for a weekend of baptisms and weddings. The pastor reminded us to pray for the young men in the archdiocese who would soon be ordained to the priesthood. A congregation of sisters had left brochures in the church lobby, inviting young women to consider attending a discernment weekend.
At a time when our society seems so frayed, I was comforted to see that (despite the headlines) humans still seek to love and serve each other, whether through marriage and childrearing or through religious life.
But as a single Catholic (and an older one at that), I couldn’t help but feel a bit left out, like something of a wallflower at the vocation dance.
Single women and men can struggle to find their place in a faith where vows are often equated with vocations. And to complicate matters, the single state itself is nuanced: some adults are transitional singles, who are in the process of determining their ultimate calling; some are unwilling singles through divorce or death; some are celibate in response to their same-sex attraction; and some are formed from birth to live unwed and unvowed.
I’ve met a number of singles who feel overlooked by ministries, programs, retreats, books and homilies that focus on being a better spouse, a better parent, a better religious. The slight isn’t only felt by Catholics: in a number of Christian denominations, singles have complained that they are the “new lepers” of the church.
While I understand — and have most certainly shared — the hurt that would prompt such a strong comparison, five decades of singlehood and much wrestling with the Lord on this point have led me to rethink the whole issue.
I’ve had opportunities both to marry and to enter religious life, and for various reasons (some of which I’m still sorting out), I’ve chosen not to pursue them. As the years pass, though, I’m finding that I ultimately haven’t ended up “alone” through bad luck, bad timing or even bad hair. Instead, I’ve increasingly come to realize that I am called to remain single, so that I might love and serve the Lord more fully.
Now, that doesn’t mean God necessarily wants me to relocate to an overseas mission or to busy myself nonstop in parish activities. Sometimes singles can fling themselves into various ministries as a way of finding a mate or creating a kind of substitute for consecrated life. Neither approach works; an authentic calling to single life requires you to be clear about your motivation for embracing this overlooked vocation.
Fortunately, Catholic singles have several models from whom they can seek inspiration and guidance. St. Paul famously extolled the benefits of single life, which frees both men and women to remain “anxious about the things of the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32-34). Though unmarried, St. Paul knew what it was to love deeply, and with his whole being: his description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 has become one of the most cited passages of Scripture at weddings.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre, who was rejected by a number of religious orders, finally realized that God simply wanted to spend time with him. Forsaking his efforts to enter a monastery, St. Labre became a pilgrim throughout Europe and ended up in Rome, where he became known as “the saint of the Forty Hours” for his intense devotion to Christ’s eucharistic presence.
St. Giuseppe Moscati, a physician and lifelong bachelor, dedicated himself to providing medical care to the poor of Naples. On our own shores, St. Kateri Tekakwitha took a private vow of virginity, which she upheld even when she was denied entrance into religious life.
After overcoming severe alcoholism, Venerable Matt Talbot worked as an unmarried laborer in Dublin, attending daily Mass and dedicating all of his free time to prayer, penance and charitable works.
Despite a priest’s recommendation that she enter a convent, actress and playwright Gabrielle Bossis remained single, enjoying a rich, intimate communion with Christ that was only revealed with the publication of her journals in the book “He and I.”
The Lord of the dance, then, calls all to his gathering, where no one — even those who show up without a clerical collar, veil or wedding ring — is a wallflower. In all of these vocations, including that of single life, Christ himself is our dance partner, and our task is simply to follow his graceful lead.
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