The Forgotten Vocation
- by Barbara Kelley, OP
Reprinted with the permission of The Catholic Times,
The Diocese of Lansing Newspaper
(posted February 12, 2007)
Years ago, before I entered religious life, I attended Mass on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day. The priest focused his homily, fittingly, on the vocation of marriage. At one point, he enumerated the other vocations: priesthood, religious life and — he hesitated — single life. Quickly, he pointed out that single life was not really a vocation — it just sort of happened to people, but wasn’t really a call. For the first time in my life, I wanted to walk right out of the church in the middle of Mass and slam the door behind me. The priest’s disparaging, dismissive words about the single life stung, hurt and angered me. From what I could gather from his words, Catholics who were not married or in the priesthood or religious life basically counted for nothing.
That homily, to me, is a great illustration of how forgotten, underrated and maligned the single state seems to be among many in the Catholic Church. The single life is seen, at best, as a stopping point before the more mature Catholic finally selects commitment to marriage or life as a priest or religious. But to treat single Catholics that way is an insult to almost every Catholic, for all of us — at one time or another in our lives — have been single. We too often forget that our Founder, Jesus Himself, was single all of his life. Although some of his followers called him Rabbi, he was never formally initiated into the religious leadership of his time, nor was he ever married — despite what The Da Vinci Code might try to tell us. Jesus, the model of all of his followers, was a single man. That alone should give us more respect for the vocation of single life.
Long before religious life as we know it was established, first-generation Christians encouraged single life as a way to free oneself to focus more on God and on Christ’s call to spread the Gospel. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul encouraged members of that community to remain single if they could do so and remain chaste. “I should like you to be free of all worries,” he tells the Corinthians. “The unmarried man is busy with the Lord’s affairs, concerned with pleasing the Lord; but the married man is busy with this world’s demands and occupied with pleasing his wife. This means he is divided.” He goes on to say that each unmarried woman “is concerned with things of the Lord, in pursuit of holiness in body and spirit,” while the married woman “has the cares of this world to absorb her and is concerned with pleasing her husband.”
Of course, married couples have a special, sacred calling to bring the light of God’s love into the world through the love that they show their spouses and children. However, a devout single Catholic has the advantage of being freer to devote time to God, to the Church, to his or her family, and to society at large — as part of his or her profession or through volunteer service. Like married Catholics, single Catholics are called to the work of the laity: to bring about the Kingdom of God through their daily work and in society. “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated so that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer” (Lumen gentium 31 § 2). Whether “temporary” singles — seeking God’s calling in their lives — or Catholics called to live their entire lives as singles, single Catholics have a special place in our Church, a unique role, and their own set of challenges — and deserve the respect, love, understanding and prayers of all members of Christ’s one Body, the Church.