July 1, 2019

Is there really a vocation to the single life?

Is there really a vocation to the single life?

Q: I’ve heard priests and people in religious education refer to a vocation to the single life. Is this really a thing? It doesn’t seem like the Church has much of a place for people who aren’t married or ordained.

A: “Here comes everybody.” In 1939, in Finnegan’s Wake, the Irish author James Joyce used those three words to describe the Catholic Church. The Church is not just those who have received holy orders or the sacrament of matrimony; it also includes those not married and those who are not clergy. In the Church, “everybody” includes single people who have such a sense of mission that they choose to be single, those who were once married or once clergy, the unmarried yearning for marriage, those who have a same sex-orientation, those who have taken religious vows and those living conjugally with another person but not married. Some singles are content and joyful; some feel the pangs of loneliness; most have a blend of these feelings, which are part of the common human condition.

A vocation is a call from God to serve the Church and the world. The sacraments of holy orders and matrimony celebrate the vocations of ordained clergy and married couples. It is a stretch to speak of every single person having a vocational call to the single life. If it is a “vocation,” the single life is often a temporary and unaccepted vocation. The call to the vocation of the single life is most evident when a person freely chooses to be single in order to fulfill a mission, such as caring for aging parents, performing work in fields of caring or human service that require intense time and emotional commitments or when the person chooses to be single and celibate as a member of a religious order.

All members of the Church have the vocation of living as a vibrant Christian. The clearest conferral of this vocation is the sacrament of confirmation. At confirmation, we declare our readiness to live as a Christian, to live according to our baptismal promises and to trust and respond to the gifts that the Holy Spirit conveys on us throughout our lives.

Perhaps it makes sense to see life as a Christian as the primary vocation and then to understand that the particular call to a certain lifestyle or task is a vocation-within-the vocation. Thus for the person living as a Christian, there can be the call from God to serve as a priest, to enter married life, to enter religious life or to dedicate one’s life to some noble task as a single person. Going one layer deeper, a person in any vocation may feel the call from God to be a teacher, health care worker, advocate for an issue of justice or peace, spiritual director or to many other altruistic ways to live. Such occupations also have the flavor of a vocation.

Paul Robb, a Jesuit scholar, has spoken of the first call and the second call. The first was like the call of Jesus to the fishermen to follow him as disciples; and the second call was at Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit inspired the disciples to be apostolic and to evangelize, to become leaders who would dedicate their lives to sharing the Good News. It is one movement for a person to respond to the call to conversion and then a second movement to respond to the empowerment for mission-living.

Single men and women are a high percentage of Catholics. In parishes we need to draw from their talents, inviting them to serve as liturgical ministers, choir members or musicians, members of councils and social service volunteers. Singles and young adults often need their own organizations. We need to listen and hear how they feel their parish can serve them and how they can be involved. We need to be wary of so concentrating on family life and ministry to the children that we miss serving our single adults, especially our young adults. Parish leaders need to be careful how we implicitly “brand” our parish’s character. We value family life, but we are called to be there for everyone.

Very often, singles of all ages gravitate towards college campus ministries where the emphasis is on the single young adults who are students. In a diocese like ours, in our smaller parishes that are the only Catholic Church for the county, it is difficult to develop a large enough group of single adults to have a sense of community. Additionally, many singles have extensive family and work responsibilities. And yet, many times, a single adult has the time, the skill, and the desire to give deeply to the life of the parish. Even in small parishes, single adults have been vibrant volunteers, members of service and prayer groups, religion teachers and ministers to youth. The Church’s ministers need to circulate, get to know single parishioners and extend hospitality and invitations to the next level of involvement. In ministry, everybody counts — but also, everybody can make a difference.

Father Paul Prabell is rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington.