Recently, Jill, 29, a long-time Busted Halo reader finishing up her medical school residency, emailed me to ask if there is such a thing as a vocation to be single in the Catholic Church. She’s open to a relationship — indeed, she longs to meet the right man and marry — but because she is busy with work, and struggles with her weight, she’s resigned to being single for a while. As she mused over her situation, she wondered whether God might actually be calling her to be single. She writes:
I sorta-sincerely considered being a nun earlier in my life and felt that wasn’t right for me. I’ve never even remotely considered being single (I’ve considered the possibility I may find myself single in later life, but not out of an active choice or perceived calling). I’m curious if other people pray about that option as much as they would about marriage or the religious life. I can’t recall a priest ever recommending that. And there’s no sacrament for single people!
So do people really say, “I’m meant to be single” for whatever reason, and then go about creating a life for themselves as singles? Does the Catholic Church really encourage that?
At my church in Pittsburgh, among petitions for the parishioners to pray for faithful marriages and a dedicated deaconate, there is a part where we pray for folks to lead an “exemplary single life.” I’d always wondered about this myself. While I’ve written columns about the challenges of being single within the Catholic Church, I was never quite clear on whether there is a particular calling for singles to remain single — but not take holy orders of any kind — to better serve God.
There is a National Catholic Singles Conference , and there are online prayers specifically for the “single vocation” and press releases about events geared toward those embracing a “single lay vocation.” Is being single a vocation?
I posed this question to Dr. Theresa Notare, Assistant Director of the Natural Family Planning Program at the Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the quick answer is no: Being single is a state in life, not a vocation. Being single can be support for your vocation to follow God’s call to you to help others, to do good works, etc., but it is not a vocation in and of itself.
Marriage, Dr. Notare explains, is an example of a vocation that requires a precise state of life. “Marriage is the vocation that a man and a woman are given by God to form a unique communion of persons in service of love and life. Only a man and a woman can enter marriage — together. One cannot enter into this vocation ‘on your own!’ Obviously, the two people have to meet each other first and then, in getting to know each other, also discern if God is calling them to marry each other,” she says, adding “It is important to remember that a person can ‘hope for’ or ‘be open to’ marriage, but it cannot be lived until one finds his/her spouse-to-be.”
OK. So, if being single isn’t a vocation or a particular calling in the Catholic Church, does that mean that singles are the leftovers and forgotten ones? Not at all, says CatholicMatch.com writer Mary Beth Bonacci. Being single means that God is asking you to follow a different path, one that is uniquely your own.
“God writes straight with crooked lines. He meets us where we are. When we turn our lives over to Him, he creates something beautiful — beyond our wildest expectations,” she says. “As singles, we’re more aware that real fulfillment comes from giving. The absence of built-in gifts in our lives motivates us to move outside of ourselves and to reach out in love to those around us.”
Jill says that it’s this time of the year — around the holidays — that she feels the most acutely alone, “like God has forgotten about me,” and while she knows she’d be fine if she remained single for the rest of her life, “I really hope I meet the right person and fall in love. It’s actually really hard to be single in some ways. And who doesn’t want their own love story?”
Dr. Notare says she’d advise singles like Jill, who have also considered taking vows of celibacy, to develop a mature self-knowledge through prayer as a way to figure out the best path forward. “In other words, know your gifts, emotions, intellectual abilities, interests and deepest sins,” she says. “Also spend time thinking about marriage, vowed celibacy, consecrated life or non-consecrated life. Read, study, talk to knowledgeable people — gather information for personal reflection. Ask yourself, ‘In which of these structures can your gifts be best used?’ Pray about it.”
Statistical good news
But I’d also add one more bit of statistical good news for those smart singles who would like to marry: At 29 and finishing up a medical residency, Jill is among the SWANS — a “Strong Woman Achiever, No Spouse” who is actually more likely to get married in the next 10 years than a woman with less education and career success. According to current population survey data that I used in my book Marry Smart, Jill has a 75 percent chance of walking down the aisle in the next decade if marriage is her goal — and that should be good news to take into the holiday season for all singles hoping to meet their match.
Being single may not be an official vocation within the Church, but singles have many gifts to offer in the service of God and others. (Check off the box of single role models in the Church.) Just as the Catholic Church could do a better job providing opportunities for young adults to meet, the Church must continue to take strides to embrace unmarried lay people and help everyone achieve their calling regardless of their state in life.
Want more advice about how to deflect those pestering relatives asking about your love life — and quell your own anxieties about being single this holiday season? Check out some of my previous columns packed with useful tips.
And let me know your thoughts! How have you lived out your calling to do God’s work — in all your life states? If you’re a long-time single Catholic, how do you feel about the Church not recognizing your life state as a vocation? Would you like the Church to acknowledge a specific vocation for singles? Share your comments below!