Making the Church a more welcoming place for the unmarried
A single friend who recently moved posted a note on her Facebook page: “Was trying out a new church on Sunday when the pastor announced that his November sermon series would be about marriage. ‘And what if you’re not married?’ he asked us. ‘Well, Scripture says “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”’
Not the most welcoming way of putting it. “Excuse me?” my friend responded. “In other words, singles, suck it up. Won’t be returning there.”
Most of the responses were supportive, as you’d expect from friends, but several dismissed her concerns or told her, in various ways, to suck it up and stop whining. Other single friends, including widows and single mothers who were single because their loutish husbands left them for Miss Suzy Cupcake, have told me they don’t talk about their struggles because the chances of being dismissed or patronized or even condemned are too high.
I’ve been in conversations when a single friend mentioned the difficulties of being single and people who were normally caring blew them off or even laughed at them, as if they were teenagers fretting over an almost invisible blemish. People surrounded by their lovely families will immediately counter with some statement about the trials of marriage and sometimes a lecture on the blessings of being single. Normal manners would require them to listen and at least feign sympathy, but they don’t.
The day after my friend posted her note, the Catholic blogger Katrina Fernandez wrote a poignant piece on the loneliness of being a single mother. “Church can be an incredibly lonely place. It was why I stopped going for a time. It’s why some Sundays I can barely drag myself there just to sit in the pew alone. Surrounded by families. And married couples. So many families and couples.”
A single working mother in her late thirties, she noted: “I’m too old for Young Adult Ministries, too divorced for Married Ministries, too employed to meet during the day for Mommy Groups, and I have no free time available to volunteer. In terms of service, I feel as a single parent I literally have nothing of myself to offer the Church, therefore I’m not even a blip on Her radar. Insignificant, unimportant, non-contributer, single-parent me.”
Listening to sermons, reading Christians writing on the web, and hearing others talk about single Catholics (when they do), I often feel the only single people of interest to other Christians are homosexual ones and they are only because they’re seen as a threat. But, of any conscious pastoral concern for those who aren’t married there is little evidence, other than the formation of singles fellowships, which might help, but also “ghetto-ize” the single people. It might be a gesture of care but it can feel like an invitation to go away—the whole lot of you.
Even the Extraordinary Synod on the Family failed to deal with single-parent families, or with single people in general (who, if they are on their own form a kind of “family unit"), although it was supposed to address “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” As Fernandez wrote of the Interim Relatio, “It’s all divorced and remarried Catholics and gay Catholics with their ‘special gifts.’” The synod’s final statement says only that “Special attention should be given to the accompaniment of single-parent families, in a particular way to help women who have to carry alone the responsibility of the home and raising children.” Big whoop. And of widows and their children, those of whom St. James said “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction,” nothing.
In church, we hear a lot about marriage, praise for those who’ve been married a long time, sympathy for those with troubled marriages, encouragement to keep on going. Little of the same sort is done for single people. But the problem isn’t just the general ignoring of single people, or the special and frequent attention given to the married. It’s the discounted version of marriage the married hear about. The lesson conveyed is not that we all have our callings and our struggles, but that the married are special and privileged.
How many of those sermons on marriage really challenge married people at the point it will hurt? In Catholic churches, how often does a priest say that, in addition to being a call and a blessing, marriage is also a duty, and that one of those duties is to be open to life? How often is the full meaning of chastity declared to the married as it is to the single? They’re told not to have sex. The married should be reminded that they get to have sex, but only in a completely self-giving way that will produce children—probably more than they originally planned on, or think they can afford.
The family sells. That’s a great part of the problem. When I was an Episcopalian, I heard an Episcopal minister, pastor of a successful suburban parish, tell a group that they ought to preach on the family and push family programs because parents with children were their “target demographic.” He mentioned that this would alienate other people, but he didn’t care. You did what you had to do to “grow the church.” This represented a toxic combination of the mainstream belief in the church as a gathered community, Evangelical pragmatism, and ecclesial commercialism, the victims of which were people who didn’t provide enough "market share."
Catholic priests are not so crass, yet it must be difficult not to bend your preaching and your programs to the majority of your parishioners and to say what they want to hear. Preach a homily about the wonders of marriage and people respond happily; preach one about being single and only the single people say anything; preach one on the requirements of marriage, particularly being open to life, and people get angry. The dynamics of parish life tend towards an imbalance between the married and the single.
The neglect of single people is a problem that needs a more systematic answer directed by our pastors. In another column, Fernandez asked for “a little more recognition — a blurb in the bulletin, a priestly mention in the prayer intentions during mass, a homily or two about saints who were raised by single parents or were single parents themselves, and lastly, when speaking of families in general, recognition that single parents and their children are indeed still very much families.”
The rest of us who are married can also do something for the single people around us: Make them real friends, especially if the default setting of your life is—as it usually is—to spend your time with other married people. (You meet people at school meetings, for example, and have an instant subject of conversation, which can then continue when you run into each other after Mass. It’s a natural road to friendship and that keeps you from other roads to friendship with others.) A family is a blessing, and blessings are given us to be shared, although not in a “Hey, I’m being nice to these poor sad single people!” way.
Include single people in dinner parties and cookouts, or just have them on their own. Invite them over to watch a football game or to sit outside on a nice day. Let them know they can simply drop by. Break yourself of the habit (if you have it) of saying “We should have the Smiths and the Jones” because putting married couples together is the way you make your dinners work. Hire a babysitter to watch your single friends’ children when they come. If they live in apartments, invite them to use your washer and dryer if they need to, and to use your home when you’re away. And so on.
It’s not much, and you will gain more than you give. That’s the great thing about becoming friends: they’ll be to you not “these unmarried people,” but John and Jennifer and Wesley.