The Catholic Thing
The Single Catholic on the Way Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 12 January 2014

Jesus told us that he is the Way to God. (John 14:6) Previously, I laid out some features of married life on the Way. Life on the Way is vastly different from what our culture even considers to be life. Our culture prefers that we get caught up in a couple of religions – fascinations that soak up our time, our effort, our money, but – most of all – our morals. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called these fascinations “religions” based on how pagans have operated for centuries.

At the time of Jesus, for example, people would have five or six “religions” – paying dues, doing their rituals, completing a checklist of things. The “gods” were often chosen according to one’s occupation, for example a soldier would sacrifice to Mars, then to the god of the hearth for a peaceful home, perhaps also to Zeus, the god of his city, and so on, living “enslaved to the elemental powers of the world.” (Galatians 4:4)

Today, without calling them “gods,” people can get tied up with the same elemental powers developing an almost religious obsession with sex, shopping, the culture of death, blind progressivism, self-indulgence, etc. It is easy to be pulled in all directions.

Single Catholics are only single in the sense that they are not married. They are not alone. People usually begin life in the intense relationships of a family and community, including the Church. Singles, we hope, then pick up the load of being adults in the Church where “each and every individual occupies a definite place in this body to which he has been called.”(Leo the Great) Then, from the clergy’s perspective: “the parish exists solely for the good of souls.” So one should expect a lot from a parish.

Only in a parish community can singles grasp the big picture. Vatican II explained that, “all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness.” Single people live out this drama as married people do within a network of relationships with other singles and with married couples.

The single Catholic is learning more and more about relationships and how to act as a Christian in the world. A properly developed Church community can help enormously, both spiritually and materially.

Many parishes do some kind of charitable work. The single baptized person can better learn selfless love by such work, even for an hour or two a week. As Vatican II explained: “the first and most necessary gift is love, by which we love God above all things and our neighbor because of God.” Selflessness is only learned in situations where one is not in control. Where the poor person, the homeless person, the sick person is the one calling the shots, needing time, or resources. That’s where we can learn.

Another benefit is belonging to a group of like-minded people, people who want to become saints. The group cannot be a clique cut off from the parish, but it can help members to develop a spirit searching for God and his company.

The single person on the Way is trying to become like Christ, the one who always follows the will of God. A saint becomes a saint only as part of “a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.”(Vatican II) What is this holiness? Vatican II said: “holiness of the Church is unceasingly manifested, and must be manifested, in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful; it is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life, tend toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others.”

In the normal run of things, going to college, finding a job, finding a spouse do not look like “follow[ing] in His footsteps and conform[ing] themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things.” (Vatican II) The “him” in the sentence is Jesus Christ himself.

Being on the Way means conforming to Christ, the perfect human being. For example, Christ’s lower bodily powers were ordered to his higher spiritual powers that were in turn totally ordered to the Father. Developing this kind of ordering only happens around good people, in good company, so that grace can achieve its effects. In such a group, men and women refine their relationship to the opposite sex so that it is loving and respectful.

The Christ who is coming to bloom in the individual radiates love and respect to others reflecting to some degree the union between Christ and his Church.

Saint Paul describes another kind of conformity to Christ: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”(Romans 8:5)

Being on the Way involves a whole new mindset, one remade in Christ. Being on the Way is complicated at first, but ultimately simple.

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are Laity: Beautiful, Good and True and The World of the Sacraments. 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Nancy de Flon, January 12, 2014
"Single Catholics are single only in the sense that they are not married." As soon as someone attempts to describe singles by what they are NOT, they lose credibility and their comments come off as condescending or even insulting. I suggest that an article about singles be written BY a single -- no, not someone living in a religious community, but someone who lives ALONE. Talking about all singles as if they were a monolithic group of people doesn't work. Some are single by choice, others not, and the reasons for that "not" can vary widely. Don't stick a label on a huge, varied body of people like that and attempt to preach to them, please.
written by Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI, January 12, 2014
Hi Nancy, I do theology you are doing sociology. Sorry. The Church has a theology of the single life.
written by Jose, January 12, 2014
A well written article. I am single and not much involved in parish life locally, although I was more involved in both parishes preceding this one. I never thought about "the parish exists solely for the good of souls"
Thank you Fr Bramwell.
written by JRF, January 13, 2014
I am on a team doing prison ministry for a group of "single men". We are trying to build family/community among like-minded single inmates (single for the period of confinement) who share the Catholic faith, more or less. Many of the points outlined have relevance for our efforts. I appreciate your comments Fr. Bramwell.
written by Louise, January 13, 2014
Father, enjoyed the article. It is a nice complement to the one you wrote on marriage.
Re Nancy's comment...if you add that to the criticism priests receive from some married couples that priests can't really teach on marriage because they are not married, it would leave no area for the priest to teach!
On the contrary, I see the priest as being in the perfect position to teach on both marriage and the single life because a priest lives in both worlds. Just like Christ, the Church is His Bride so he understands what it is to lay down his life for his bride and as a celibate he has renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom, and as such is an eschatological sign to us on earth that this is not our final home.
I think it is a particular temptation for single people to not get involved in parish life because they think it is too oriented to married members but in my experience when single people get involved they see it differently. The parish is meant to be an extension of our domestic families so everyone should feel they are an important part of that family and there is something for everyone to do.
written by Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI, January 13, 2014
Thanks Louise, the fact is that we learn about true humanity from Jesus Christ and his Body the Church. Denying this is denying the Incarnation and how the Church is constituted by Christ. If we only learn about the life of singles from how they live it, we are ignoring the meaning of the Coming of Christ. Anyone can see how sinners live. There is however a profound hope with the coming of Christ that humanity is reformed.
written by Ron Van Wegen, January 13, 2014
Single life - chosen or not - and in my case not, is the only "vocation" which has no ceremony to accompany it. I see it as failure. I failed to find my vocation and have to live with the choices I made. It's a prison and like those in prison I am called to live out as fully as possible the life I find myself in according to the lights I have been given and relying on the graces Christ sends me. And singles clubs are the only clubs you join with the sole purpose of leaving. Oh, and it's hard, so very, very hard.
written by Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI, January 14, 2014
Ron, my heart goes out to you, this can be a very difficult time which is why the parish there. You may have to try a few before you find one that works but the "lights you have been given" do include Christ and his Church, no small resource, use it.
written by Louise, January 16, 2014
Ron, I've been contemplating your post for a few days and all I can say is you might be surprised at the number of married people who would say something similar to your lament about their married situation!!!! Single life is certainly not a failure and God does indeed call some people to the single life. Perhaps you are suffering not from the single life itself but from an impoverished view of the vocation to single life. I will pray that God will lift up your heart and grant you peace and show you the irreplaceable contribution that only you can make.
written by Larry, January 23, 2014
I've always wondered why, being unmarried themselves, priests don't relate well to their unmarried parishioners, and ensure that they have opportunities to be involved in parish life. But everyone knows that parish life revolves around families, not singles. One's standing in a typical parish depends on the family's involvement with the school, or having the kids in RE. "Young adult" groups exist to get their members married off. After that, singles are all but invisible. Single men over about 30? Just forget it.

It doesn't help that the self-appointed Catholic "media" (radio, TV, speakers-for-hire) is dominated by fathers of huge families, blared prominently in their bios. And how frequently do these "model citizens" openly wonder whether being unmarried is a valid "vocation".

Frankly I'm so very sick of describing one's marital status in terms of a "calling from God". Heck, it's just something that happens. Or doesn't. Nothing more than that.
written by John, January 25, 2014
Dear Fr. Bramwell: With all due respect, you have no idea what it is like to be a single Catholic in today’s Church. To be a single Catholic is to be alone and lonely all the time. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. There is no way that an hour or two in the soup kitchen makes up for the lack of marriage and family, or or a broader Catholic community that just doesn’t exist for many of us.

If you are a single Catholic over 35, your chances of getting married border on … a percentage number so low I am not even going to write it down because it could lead others to despair. It is simply not the case anymore that “everybody” gets married eventually except for a small number who don’t through inclination or special circumstances. I would say that at least half us don’t, at least not in the Church anyway, and this is evident in the number of Catholic sacramental marriages, which is dropping every year. There is a massive pastoral crisis for single people in the Church today and no one seems to notice it.

Just look at the comments above. Being single is like being “in prison,” locked out, a “failure.” “There is no place for single men over about 30.” Yes, indeed. A lot of us really do feel this way. There is indeed a strong tendency among long term singles to feel alienated from the typical parish community that revolves around marred couples with children, when that is who we wanted to be and always expected to be, but aren’t.

And by the way, the typical single isn’t 22 and just out of college anymore. We are middle aged adults with middle aged problems and concerns, not the least of which is being alone for the rest of our lives.

It is all very well and good to have a theology of single life, but in actual practice it has little application in most parishes. It is also well and good to have a theology of marriage, but in a society where Catholic marriages just aren’t happening for so many of us, and where serious Catholics who want to marry within the Church face so many obstacles, there needs to be some action behind the talk. The Church has got a singles problem. How many single Catholics have left the Church because they couldn’t get married? Probably millions. How many single Catholics, lukewarm to begin, drifted away and never came back because they never thought of the Church as a place where marriages happen—that isn’t just for people who are already married? Millions more, I am sure. It is time we recognized our problem and began to deal with it.
written by Larry, January 25, 2014
I have never felt "in prison" or "a failure", and I do not blame the Church for my state in life. Except perhaps for the fact that the goal to "marry a nice Catholic girl" was drilled into me at an early age and I held to it for far too long. I knew 25 years ago, at age 22 and just out of college, that there were no Catholic girls to be found. Nice, or otherwise. And that's not an overstatement. My entire generation simply walked away.

Many of those women are now divorced, and they either believe that they can't return to the Church, or they've looked into the annulment process and been scared off. Regardless, my diocese now requires a 9-MONTH education process before marriage is allowed. Causing the number of weddings to plummet, and no one seems to care.

I think the Church is dividing itself into two sects. Diocesan and parish employees and bloggers and media types yammer about "springtime" and "new evangelization" and how great everything is. While the rest of us... the one-time core of the Church... wonder "what happened?" In another 10 or 20 years, when most of the people we see at mass every week have passed away, who will be left?
written by Brian, June 29, 2014
I've always (as a single man now in my mid-thirties, heavily involved in church ministries -- why NOT stand in the back and usher during Mass instead of sitting alone in the pew amidst couples and families?) thought that we need to clarify that there are also a wider range of certain experiences. For example, like many people now adays, I attended a commuter college part-time (and now attend graduate school one class per semester at night the same way) while working full time, so had no social experience there. Catholic blogs to a T seem to presume that all post-Vatican II Catholics have attended small Catholic colleges and had fulfilled faith-filled experiences there, when that isn't how life works.

Similarly, I do have to laugh at the fact that I'm in the rare situation of having a pastor who is a converted former Lutheran minister-turned-Catholic priest, granted permission by the Holy See to attended Seminary and granted permission by the Diocese to direct our parish. So, yes, what I'm getting at is that we have the super-rare case in my parish of a married priest... (the irony is that it was the couples that complained of such a thing -- the few single folks in the place were used to being stepped on, so we just got to know the guy and decided that he's a really good priest, with that standard convert's fervor -- but with a grandfather's lack of remembering how a single man thinks).

We need to stop pretending that the Catholic Church -- or Christianity in general is ever going to understand the mindset of the lay single. From Day One, Paul sets it right out there: we're basically expected as followers of Christ to be celibate religious brethren, and then those that fail at being called to that or holding to that get married and have a new generation of Christian children as a fallback plan. We lay singles really aren't even Plan C scripturally, as much as that sucks. It's why I'm doing as many ministries as I can get a hold on at church, so that folks with families (a.k.a. real parishioners) can enjoy God's Love together while I selfishly refuse to take vows under the false belief that someone, somewhere might learn to love me someday and have children with me...
written by DianeD, July 28, 2014
Hey, I am a single 55-year old woman. I had my share of “loves” and the story of the Prodigal Son does not just only happen to men!!! I thought I’d be married with a family of my own, but it didn’t happen. My Mom died when I was 9, my father gradually withdrew from the family, and I was ultimately raised by a single God-fearing Catholic Uncle who taught me my prayers, and family values, among other things. He was very involved with the Church throughout his life. When he became old and frail and unable to take care of household needs, I gave up my apartment and moved back home to help him out. Not so sure I would have been able to do that if I were married. But single life…yeah, sometimes I am lonely but I take it to the Lord, I go out to meet friends, I joined my parish Choir (although I fear I am the youngest one there). I do sense of a “state of limbo” with singles in the Catholic Church but years and years ago you either got married or became a priest or nun. Part of that sentiment is still lingering around. There was no singlehood then. It wasn’t until recently (70’s, 80’s, 90’s) that cultural changes saw a vast number of people being single. I am still open to getting married, even at my age, but if the Lord deems otherwise, then so be it. I just keep asking Him that he wants me single, He better be hitting me over the head with what He wants me to do with that state of life. 

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