I never guessed at the loneliness of single people in our parishes when I was young. My childhood church was around the corner from my childhood school, and church life revolved around families like mine. Coffee in the parish hall after Mass involved children from the parish schools running around as our parents and grandparents conversed. My brothers and youngest sister were in the parish hockey club run by the Knights of Columbus; my mother chatted in cold arenas with fellow parish hockey parents. My mother was also in the parish Catholic Women’s League, and many of the other ladies had children I knew from school or the parish youth groups, junior and senior.
The importance of the parish in my family’s social life is perhaps reminiscent of the “Catholic ghettos” of the first half of the 20th century. However, that is how it still was in the 1980s, and how it still is for millions of church-attending families. There are activities for children, for parents, for teens, for the elderly. However, there do not seem to be many activities or comforts for unmarried people between the age of youth group and retirees’ daytime bridge. This is, at least, what my many single readers tell me. They feel invisible, and in many cases they wish the Church would do more to introduce them to each other and, ultimately, help them get married.
Singles often ask me why it is that their married friends have so little time for them, and I have concluded it is because their lives and the lives of married friends, particularly married friends with children, are so different. Like parish activities, the lives of most married people revolve around family; her children have all grown up, and two have children of their own, yet when she needs a new car, my mother still chooses a minivan that seats seven. And married people with children, seeking support and understanding regarding the challenges of marriage and parenthood, turn to other married people with children.
The lives of single people, in contrast, revolve around advanced studies, work and, if they have the time and money, hobbies. They often feel left out or conspicuous at family events at which they are the only single people their age. The weddings of younger siblings can be a source of mixed joy and pain to the unmarried, especially when well-meaning married guests jest, “Your turn next!” And yet married friends often seem impatient with singles’ tales of dates that went badly or romances that went sour. We are beyond all that, we think. We have moved on to another, richer, phase of our lives, and thank goodness.
But the temptation of Catholic married people to dismiss the lives of Catholic singles as prolonged adolescence must be resisted. The so-called “Single Scene” is packed with people who, unlike the majority of my Catholic single readers, have little interest in getting married; they are out for whatever sexual comforts they can get. This means Catholic singles are usually in an environment in which premarital sexual relations are considered standard for any dating relationship; even Catholic men find themselves left lonely after explaining that they are saving sex for marriage. To resist the temptations and dangers of the Single Scene, unmarried Catholics need the support and friendship of other Catholics: clerical, married and religious.
At the same time, Catholic singles should be encouraged to take the initiative in creating a welcome parish environment for other single Catholics — one open to marriage but stressing the joys and opportunities of Catholic adult single life. My own church community has an unusually large proportion of unmarried, childless people between the ages of 25 and 65, and when other parishioners go home after Mass with or to their families, many of these singles go off together for a drink and, more often than not, for lunch in each other’s homes.
My husband and I are, despite our married state, welcome in this jolly band of single Catholics and take our turn hosting the almost weekly Sunday dinner. This past Sunday we served a four-course lunch for 10; we had cooked enough for 12. This time our guests were between the ages of 24 and 63: four men, four women, and none of them likely to marry each other. And this is fine. The point of our Sunday lunches is not to pair off the unmarried. The point is Catholic friendship. Catholic singles need recognition, support and, above all, Catholic friendship.
(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer and author of Seraphic Singles.)