Rapidly growing group face unique challenges
By RASHAE OPHUS JOHNSON
It ain’t easy being single, but singles are far from alone. As Americans are marrying later and divorcing more, single Catholics in the U.S. now number around 27 million.
Although the church does not classify “singlehood” as a formal vocation, it can be a profound period of discernment and a time to serve God and his church in ways that may not be feasible once avowed to married or religious life.
Travis Harrington, a Chugiak teacher and the contemporary choir director at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River, recently spoke to a youth group about using one’s gifts to fulfill a calling in singlehood. He believes singleness can be redeemed if one dedicates that time period — whether temporary or indefinite — to serving God.
“I may get married someday, but right now I firmly believe this is what I’m called to do,” said Harrington, 38. “I’ve accepted a vocation of single life.”
He feels blessed to have been the confirmation sponsor of 10 teens, and he coaches three sports in addition to teaching. The opportunities to adequately mentor these youth could have been scarce if his free time was devoted to marriage and children of his own.
“My friend once told me, ‘I think you do a really good job with the vocation of single life,’ and I looked at her like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But a year later, it makes sense.”
Designated Catholic “singles” groups are rare if not nonexistent in Alaska, and many unmarried active Catholics like Harrington aren’t enthused by the notion of church-led matchmaking. Rather, they yearn for a vibrant, cohesive social network of Catholic young adults, single or married, but aren’t sure how to initiate one.
Selene Viens, 25, once sought fellowship at a young adults coffee social publicized in the parish bulletin, and felt like a third wheel when a married couple were the only other people to attend. Another time she tried to register for a church hike, only to discover it was for teens. Viens, a graduate student at the International Theological Institute in Austria who summers back home in the Anchorage area, envisions singles or young adult social clubs united by a particular cause, such as the pro-life movement.
“I plan to get things started when I move back [after graduation],” she said. “I hope to jump in and make things happen.”
And that’s precisely how such things must happen — spearheaded by the laity, according Arthur Roraff, a seminarian who worked and dated in Anchorage for 15 years while discerning his vocation. Observing the dynamics from both the single and pastoral perspectives, he suggests parishes demonstrate support by providing spiritual direction and resources as requested by the laity. A chaplain could accompany a group outing, for example, or the church could host club events.
“It’s great to have a community of peers who share the faith. If it happens organically, that’s great, but it might need an organized effort,” said Roraff, who helped cultivate the popular Theology & Brew sessions in Anchorage. “The church will do what the church can do, but this is an effort that really needs to be led by the laity.”
Dirk Imlach, a cofounder of Theology & Brew, has helped launch several young adult activities affiliated with Holy Family Cathedral over the years, from a softball team to an encyclical reading club.
“Initially it was very difficult. You’d go to church and didn’t see any [singles] there. And if you did, it wasn’t a place to go up and introduce yourself and get a phone number. It felt kind of creepy — you saw other people try it, and it looked kind of creepy. But if you didn’t, you never met them again outside of church.”
He met his wife, Theresa, whom he wed a year ago, through Roraff and their network of active Catholic friends — a network he helped build.
“If you want to meet people of faith and grow in your faith and share your faith, you have to invest your time and energy in it,” he said. “It can be very time-consuming trying to keep people involved. Once you get a program started, the single people connect and get married and don’t come anymore.
“That’s one of the things single people do well in the church,” Imlach added. “They serve in a unique way and it’s an opportunity for them to meet a lot of people and grow in their faith.”
Statistics indicate roughly nine million single Catholics regularly attend Mass. In the Archdiocese of Anchorage, more than 175 singles — from college students to senior citizens — are seeking a soulmate via the popular online dating service CatholicMatch.com.
In addition to the foremost purpose of cultivating marriage, another aim of CatholicMatch and its founders is to advocate for singles within the church. Cofounder Brian Barcaro encourages priests to reach out to unmarried parishioners by simply mentioning them occasionally in homilies or hosting forums on relevant topics that will attract singles without feeling contrived. Though singlehood is not a vocation per se, Barcaro believes it is a God-given opportunity to answer a calling.
“Just because you’re not called to married life or religious life yet, it doesn’t mean God loves you less. It means you are to live your life for Christ — live out that Christian vocation that we all have from baptism — in the state of singlehood,” he said. “And you should live it with fervency.”