By Anna Maria Basquez
DENVER, Colorado, OCT. 3, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The National Catholic Singles Conference is returning to its birthplace for 2012, and its organizers find their ministry just as vital as ever, as they say that U.S. statistics on Catholic singles continue to surprise them.
The annual conference began in Denver in 2005 and was last hosted in that city the year after. In 2012, it will be held Jan. 27-29. The conference has ministered to more than 3,000 Catholic singles since it started.
Recent research shows there are more than 27 million single Catholics in the United States, which is a record number, according to conference founder Anastasia Northrop, who cited a Pew Research poll.
“We need to overcome our aversion to the term ‘single’ and realize that singles make up a sizable percentage of the Church,” Northrop said. “Sometimes offices in the Church administration seem hesitant to do anything for ‘singles’ and prefer to only have programs for ‘young adults.’ We need both.
“Certainly, many singles could be called ‘young adults,’ but there are many in their 30s, 40s and older who are part of the Church, but often feel there is no place for them or that everything is centered on families. If all singles were both welcomed and also involved in their parishes, the Church would be a different place.”
Northrop, president of the Theology of the Body International Alliance (TOBIA), launched the conference and gives talks, promoting study groups in the U.S. and several countries in Europe and South America. She spoke with ZENIT from Vienna, Austria.
ZENIT also spoke with Darin Ries, a NCSC conference coordinator. From his own experience with receiving an annulment after his 2006 divorce, and then marrying in 2008, he works to bring the messages of Theology of the Body to single and divorced Catholics.
ZENIT: Has the ministry to singles changed across the country and if so, how so?
Northrop: I believe that the awareness of the need for ministry to singles in the Church has grown since I started the NCSC in 2005, but there is still a lot to be done in this area. Clearly the number of singles in the pews — and outside them — continues to grow, both because people are marrying later and because of the divorce rate. It is taking time for people in positions of ministry in the Church to recognize the specific needs of singles, whether never-married, divorced, annulled or widowed. Ministry to singles includes not only recognition of their state as “single” and the challenges that come with that, but also a welcome invitation to serve in the Church with their particular gifts. The NCSC seeks to provide not only these aspects, but also formation for those who are pursuing a vocation to marriage or the priesthood or religious life. It also helps build a community of like-minded people, which provides encouragement for everyday life.
ZENIT: What are the challenges in helping Catholic singles to discern their vocations, whether to marriage or discernment of consecrated or priestly vocations in the Church?
Northrop: Today we have a general identity crisis in society. There has been a widespread ongoing attempt to level the differences between men and women. First of all, if people don’t know what it means to be an authentic man or woman, what masculinity and femininity are all about, then it’s hard for them to enter a vocation and live it fully and successfully. Ultimately every vocation is a call to love and make a gift of oneself in a particular way. If we don’t know what it means to love because our society is so self-centered, then it’s going to be more difficult to live our vocation.
Secondly, if one’s faith is simply a matter of rules instead of a relationship with God, then it’s going to be hard to discern God’s calling for one’s life. Through the formation in the talks and the opportunities to experience Christ more deeply in the liturgies and sacraments at the NCSC, we hope to further singles’ ability to hear God and follow his invitation.
ZENIT: What have been the challenges in getting Catholic singles to take those next steps toward serious dating, courtship and marrying within the faith?
Ries: In my experience, so many are so used to being on their guard against the influences of secular society on others, that they forget to look for the reason that the person may be right for them. We have to be open to the graces that a blossoming courtship can offer and not be afraid to take that chance. The critical thing, though, is keeping a shared faith and love of Christ and his Church at the center of the relationship.
Northrop: Many factors play into this question. In my talk “Why Are We Still Single?” I address many of the cultural issues affecting singles today. Many factors contribute to our growing “single” society — whether it be “still single” or “single again.” One factor is the misunderstanding of the nature of love and the less-than-realistic understanding of marriage portrayed on television. Another is the promiscuous culture; another, the fear of getting into another relationship and getting hurt yet again; another is the understanding of commitment as a burden rather than a proper exercise of one’s freedom; another the lack of good examples of marriage because of the high divorce rate today. Yet another is the prevalence of pornography — and the list goes on.
There are many ways in which we singles need healing in order to enter into a healthy relationship. So many singles are asking the question “Why am I single?” and the answers run the gamut. It’s up to each person to examine their lives and see the areas where they can heal and grow and prepare themselves to make a complete gift of self in marriage. Then, with God’s grace they can have the courage to enter into marriage.
ZENIT: It is said Catholic singles fear dating other Catholics because of a pressure to make the relationship move too quickly toward marriage. What is your experience?
Ries: Many things need to be in place for a couple to have a successful relationship that leads to marriage. For each of us it is different, and while I hesitate to call these things criteria, because we shouldn’t date by a check list, the reality is that we do all have things that we are looking for. One of those things for faithful Catholics should be that the other is a faithful Catholic, but this isn’t everything. When I was dating, I met many faithful Catholic women, but it wasn’t until I met my wife that I found a woman that I was fully compatible with and through God’s grace, we built a successful relationship that led to a wonderful marriage.
Northrop: Fear is certainly an issue in relationships, as is the lack of understanding of our sexuality. The “over-sexualizing” of our culture can sometimes lead to fear in relationships. Living chastely is always a challenge, and what each person needs to do in order to live an integrated dating life varies, but many of the basic points presented by John Paul II in “Love and Responsibility” and “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body” can be very helpful in the quest for a healthy and loving relationship, lived in accordance with Church teaching.
Attitudes such as: seeing the person as a gift to be received instead of an object to be used for one’s own pleasure, speaking the “language of the body” truthfully, knowing that the meaning of love is to be a gift of self — all these attitudes help us to have a great respect for the other, made in God’s image, and to desire only his or her good. Are we asking the question, “How will this person make me happy?” or instead, “How can I love this person and help make him or her happy?”
These ideas may sound theoretical, but they can be lived out practically. This in turn can help a couple with the struggles of chastity before marriage –as well as living a healthy married life.
Sure, in an attempt to avoid the culture of casual dating some people can approach relationships with “too serious” of an attitude. Frankly, as a single, the world of dating is not an easy one. Yes, we date because we are looking for a spouse, but we also have to know that we need to have the patience to let relationships develop and not impose the burden of wanting to know immediately whether or not this person is the right one. Most of the time you can’t know right away. Whether we like it or not, knowing someone else and discerning whether they are the person with whom we want to spend the rest of our life takes time and effort.
Honestly, men and women both have their particular “issues” that they bring to today’s dating world. Yes, many men, as well as women, are afraid of commitment. The bottom line of any relationship is having a common vision for life and keeping Christ at the center. If we are dating and marrying in order “to make myself happy,” then our priorities are upside down. We need to seek the spouse with whom we can grow together in love for Christ and with whom we can get to heaven. Of course, along with aspects related to faith and a common vision, we also need to seek a spouse who is in general a healthy person on the natural human level as well.
I’d add this: Just relax! Try to see the other person as a brother or sister in Christ and develop a friendship. Then see where it goes. If both people are seeking God’s will then the Lord will lead.
ZENIT: Why is a conference like this important to the Catholic faith? Is there a great need for this ministry?
Northrop: The percentage of singles in the USA is always a surprise to me. Speaking about society in general, some cities are at a point where there are more households led by singles than by married people. A recent study in the USA reported that there are now more people ages 25-34 who have never been married than there are people that age who are married.
There are a record number of single Catholics in the U.S.: more than 27 million, according to a Pew research poll. They make up nearly 40% of the Catholic population here.
Single Catholics hunger for the camaraderie a conference provides. It’s all too easy to feel alone or isolated as a single among a sea of married people. As to the conference’s impact on the Catholic faith, attendees come away encouraged and emboldened to embrace their faith, to integrate it into their daily lives more fully and to evangelize. We hear stories of attendees going home and making a difference on a local level.
Conferences like the National Catholic Singles Conference are also important to the Catholic faith because they provide a service to a specific niche within the Church. A parish priest or bishop cannot possibly attend to all the specialized needs of each sub group within the Church but through their leadership and guidance others can take up such tasks, which is what we try to do through NCSC.
ZENIT: What can parishes or dioceses do to better the situation of singles ministry?
Northrop: There is certainly a lot that can be done to minister to singles. As far as practical things, first of all, awareness of the existence of singles is an important step. It is important that they are acknowledged in parish programs so that they don’t get the impression that it’s only teens, families and seniors who are part of the Church. If priests can just be aware of this when they preach and perhaps include examples that involve singles, that would be a great start. Having events for singles is important, but it’s also crucial that singles be invited to get involved with general parish events whether it be teaching CCD, pro-life work, feeding the homeless, reaching out to the elderly, joining the Knights of Columbus or other similar groups, etc.
ZENIT: Any final thoughts on your ministry:
Northrop: I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my fellow Catholic singles through the NCSC. This is not something I looked for, nor did I expect to be single myself for so long. But God’s ways are not our ways — and ultimately I trust that he knows what is best for each and every person. Christ is our ultimate fulfillment and only through falling in love with him will we be able to fully live the life of self-gift in marriage or the religious life. The NCSC strives to support Catholic singles in their life with Christ and in the Church and to provide hope in today’s world.
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