Paying Attention to Single Catholics

By: Mary Beth Bonacci

single in church

Can 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.

Credit to Mary Beth Bonacci of CatholicExchange.

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