“The unmarried man gives his mind to the Lord’s affairs and how he can please the Lord; but the man who is married gives his mind to the affairs of this world and to how he can please his wife, and he is divided in mind. So, too, the unmarried woman, and the virgin, gives her mind to the Lord’s affairs and to being holy in body and spirit; but the married woman gives her mind to the affairs of this world and to how she can please her husband.” 1 Corinthians 7: 32-34
In a November 1, 2010 letter, Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis offered encouragement to lay men and women of his archdiocese who choose to remain single in order to make themselves available for prayer and apostolic work. In the letter he said, “Single men and women who have given themselves wholeheartedly to Christ…bind themselves to the service of others, and they participate directly in the Church’s mission and share themselves intimately with those who walk with them on the journey to Christ’s kingdom.”
Archbishop Carlson continued, “They discern God’s will for themselves through prayer, spiritual reading, and retreats. They commit to their families—parents, siblings, and extended family members. They partner with friends, co-workers, fellow parishioners, neighbors, and all whom they encounter in seeking to make our world a better place.”
For 60-year-old Sara (who declined to give her last name), a St. Louis resident who works in the health care industry, being a dedicated single gives her an opportunity “to enrich the Church and serve others in need.”
Sara was born Catholic, lived a promiscuous lifestyle in her youth, and returned to active practice of the Faith through the Church’s Courage ministry for persons with same-sex attraction. She says that Courage taught her that “God can heal and restore.”
Sara never married and has no children, and says she first came to appreciate the value of the dedicated single life when the elderly mother of a priest-friend fell and broke an arm and leg. The woman lived out-of-state; Sara offered to fly to her home and help re-locate her to a facility closer to where the priest lived. “Being single gave me the versatility to help him and his mother,” Sara said. “And I had the opportunity to serve God as a generous single.”
Sara is also friends with a couple with a severely autistic adult son, who can be difficult to take out in public places. Sara offers to care for the son from time to time, so the couple can take a night off. At work, she can come early and stay late, often easing the burden on married co-workers. In her own family, Sara can take the “night shift” in caring for her elderly mother, offering time that the married members of her family cannot.
“I am not single by leftover, but single by choice,” Sara said. “When I look at it as a vocation, it becomes a ministry in and of itself.”
Being single can be lonely and awkward, Sara admitted, especially on special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or Valentine’s Day. However, “When I remember that God has called me to this vocation, it becomes easier,” she said.
Sara’s dedicated single vocation also requires a strong spiritual life, she said. She regularly goes to daily Mass, confession, and adoration. “I need a lot of time with God,” she said. “No one else fills me up like the enormous love of the Father.”
Transforming the world from within
Brian Finnerty, a 49-year-old from New York City, is a member of Opus Dei and one of about 900 Opus Dei “numeraries” in the US who have made a commitment to apostolic chastity. Opus Dei was founded by St. Josemaria Escriva in 1928, and is dedicated to helping the faithful become closer to God in the work they do in everyday life.
Finnerty remarked, “I was attracted to Opus Dei by the ideal of finding God in all that I do, and in helping spread the Christian message to others.”
He joined the movement in 1985 as a “supernumerary”—someone married or intending to marry—and later became a numerary. “Christ was unmarried and was able to completely give himself to others,” Finnerty explained. “St. Paul wrote about his preference for the single state. I saw others living it, and they were quite happy.”
Finnerty had previously worked as a programmer for IBM and as a technology reporter before becoming director of communications for Opus Dei in the United States 15 years ago. He currently lives in an Opus Dei home in Manhattan with 10 other single men. The men work in their various secular professions during the day, then return home for prayer, apostolic work, and community life. Two of the men in the home are priests (about 2 percent of Opus Dei members are priests) who celebrate morning Mass for the community. None of the lay members have taken vows or are professed religious; each of the numeraries has made a commitment to remaining single.
“Joining Opus Dei and becoming a numerary was a calling,” Finnerty said. “It was what God wanted me to do with my life.”
He said that his small Manhattan community—like similar Opus Dei communities of men or women around the country—is like a family. Members make a point of returning home on time for dinner together, and celebrate special occasions, like birthdays, together. Additionally, members have time to engage in apostolic work; Finnerty helps organize Opus Dei days of recollection and retreats. He is also available to offer spiritual advice to other Opus Dei members. Being single, he said, has given him the availability to engage in such efforts.
Most Opus Dei members do not seek to become priests or religious, Finnerty said. “The world needs lay people on fire with Christ’s message and dedicated to transforming the world from within,” he explained. “It needs lay people head-over-heels for Christ setting this world on fire.”
Finnerty is aware of the negative press that Opus Dei gets—in the book and movie The Da Vinci Code, it is depicted as a secretive, villainous organization—but believes it is due to the group’s fidelity to the Holy Father and the “unusual” commitment of its members to lay apostolic work.
“We’re following a divine call,” Finnerty said. “We’re doing the work that God has asked us to do. It’s important and beautiful.”
Randy (who also declined to give his last name), age 55, is a dedicated single who is a friend of Sara’s. He lives in central Illinois and works in the financial services industry. Although he’s dated in the past, he has never felt the calling to commit himself to someone in marriage.
“Remaining single does involve sacrifice, but it frees you up to do what God wants,” he said.
A full life
Like Sara, Randy strives to maintain a healthy spiritual life through prayer, the sacraments, and adoration, and he has also devoted himself to a variety of charitable activities. But what he cherishes most is the one-on-one contact he has with people as he goes about his daily life.
“Many people have asked me to pray for them,” he explained. “Sometimes I suggest to them, ‘Let’s sit down right now and pray together.’”
He has no regrets about choosing the single life—“I have been blessed to have a full life with a great family and many friends.”
“In whatever vocation we’re called to we need to respond to and do God’s will,” Randy said. “For me, it’s as a lay person serving in the single life.”
An authentic gift of self
Ruth Hayes-Barba, age 63, is a Portland, Oregon resident who lost her husband to leukemia three years ago. The couple were daily communicants, and “the bond of the Eucharist sustained our close relationship,” she said. Ruth doesn’t describe herself as a widow or dedicated single, but as a “surviving spouse” who continues a real and ongoing “relationship with [her late husband] through daily Eucharist…and the Communion of Saints.” She speaks of sharing an ongoing mission with her husband, a mission rooted in her relationship with God. “My focus,” she says, “is being in relationship with the Divine Persons.”
One of the greatest challenges of becoming newly single, Ruth notes, is “the loss of complimentarity and companionship.” It isn’t just about being home alone, but “the loss of interaction and feedback.” There is the danger of losing one’s sense of balance in life. The antidote, Ruth believes, is having “deep and abiding friendships that can challenge our thinking and keep us on center…. One can also become very self-involved through the trauma of grief. We must work to point ourselves outward, to do for others what we most long for ourselves.”
As a longtime student of Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body, Ruth says, “My focus remains on how I can make the most authentic gift of self in this stage of life, specifically discerning the mystery of nuptial relationship in the celibacy of single life. ‘Nuptial’ implies exclusivity and permanence of self-gift reserved for the beloved, and for me it holds a particular identification with the Church in its bridal dimension.”
She cites the Song of Solomon: “I will arise and go into the streets, seeking Him who my heart loves” (Song 3:2). On a practical level, Ruth says the question must be asked: “How can I best put my life and gifts at the service of the Church?” Last year she went on a volunteer trip to the Holy Land to work with traumatized and special-needs children, seeing a new part of the world and experiencing in person the deep needs of the vulnerable and innocent.
A strong prayer life helps her in her full-time work as a social worker and therapist for Northwest Family Services, a non-profit, non-sectarian agency that offers a variety of services to families in need. Although it is not a Catholic group, many of its beliefs are in line with Catholic teaching on the life issues, the importance of chastity, and the promotion of Natural Family Planning. “We’re on the front lines ennobling human dignity, and dealing with wounded people who have made bad life choices,” Ruth explained.
In the end, Ruth knows it is the Eucharist that sustains her, saying all Catholics—whatever their state in life—must “stay focused on the Eucharist, where all our loves and longing are held, in that ‘eternal now’ where the temporal and eternal interpenetrate each other, and where we are already pulled through the veil into the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.”