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Jessica Petter, 35, stays busy in her home parish and churches in her region. Petter said she’s been single the majority of her adult life because dating as a devout Catholic presents its own unique difficulties.  Ben Rowse, a 38-year-old parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Bentonville, once discerned a religious vocation. Now, he is ready to start dating again. (Courtesy Ben Rowse)

Young Arkansans explore single life amid vocations

Single Catholics cite agony, pressure over life’s uncertainties and Church vocations

Published: March 22, 2024      
“Marie,” 26, a singer who attends the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, spoke anonymously with Arkansas Catholic March 17 about the challenges of being a single Catholic discerning her life’s vocation. (Katie Zakrzewski)

The wrinkled page 68 of diocesan faith formation director Jeff Hines’s 1921 copy of the Baltimore Catechism taught a generation of Catholics the following about vocations:

“God, we are told, assigned to every one in this world a certain work to perform in a particular state of life, and this work is called ‘vocation.’ One, for instance, is to be a priest; another, a layman; one married; another single, etc.”

It was those three letters — that “etc” — that would create confusion and agony for years to come, as single Catholics attempted to discern their way through the murky waters of “vocation.”

In recent years, a growing number of young people are choosing to be single and are content about it. A 2022 study by the Pew Research Center found 30 percent of adults in the U.S. are single, with 34 percent of women and 63 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 35 reporting that they are single and content — in other words, not actively seeking dates or relationships. 

These numbers are a stark contrast to just 22 percent of people in 1950 being single, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

The Survey Center on American Life reported in 2023 the reasons young people are staying single run the gamut — people are not interested in dating, they enjoy being single more than being in a relationship, they cannot find someone who meets their expectations or they have more important priorities at the moment, including education, careers and building up personal finances. Many of these young and single people are open to the possibility of serious relationships and marriage in the future. 

But in the Catholic Church, singlehood comes with additional baggage, such as stress, anxiety and agony over discernment. 

U.S. Catholic reported in 2020 that 6.4 percent of single Catholics were widowed, 27.7 percent were never married, 3.3 percent were separated and 8.7 percent were divorced. The ambiguity of not fitting into a neat and tidy box has left many Catholics feeling lesser than and unseen in their own Church.


Catechism on vocations

Hines points to the domino effect that resulted from the “et cetera” in the Baltimore Catechism. 

“Now, in the old days — the Baltimore Catechism days — people were told, ‘Young person, you need to think about your vocation. Do you want to be a priest or a layperson or married or single?’ Did they ever say ‘et cetera?’ Maybe your vocation is to be an et cetera,” Hines said with a laugh. “What did they mean by that? I think what has happened is, for a generation or more, nobody knew what ‘et cetera’ meant, so they stopped reading, and they taught that, ‘Well, your vocation is to be married or ordained or single. And you need to pick one.’ And now we realize that life doesn’t fit in tidy boxes.”

Now, the Catechism no longer points to a vocation of singlehood. 

“In the current catechism, this is not in there — the vocation of a single person,” Hines said. “What is in there is the consecrated virgin idea, the person who decides to renounce the married life for the kingdom of God. That paragraph is in the section on marriage, and it talks about the sacrament of marriage. It does say being married is a vocation, but it recognizes that some people renounce marriage. That doesn’t mean all people who are single have renounced marriage. You could call that a vocation, but the catechism doesn’t use that word for it.”

Hines suspects a good portion of the anxiety and misunderstanding faced by single Catholics is felt under the assumption that singlehood has to be selected as a vocation, which is incorrect. 


Consecrated single life

Andrea Olvera, a 23-year-old parishioner at Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock, is discerning a vocation as a consecrated virgin. She had heard God’s call to her as a child, but always assumed she would grow up to get married and become a mother like the other women in her family. 

“Growing up … I always kind of knew that God was calling me into that side of … marrying him,” Olvera said. “And it was really scary growing up because I didn't want to accept it. I was like, ‘No, I'm going to be a mom, and I'm going to get married. I was so used to watching my mom do motherhood, and it just seemed so normal.” 

But then, Olvera had a life-changing experience at a religious retreat in 2021 that opened her eyes. 

“Around maybe three years ago, I started asking God about my relationships,” Olvera said. “I had like a really deep encounter with him at a retreat. And that's when I started thinking about it again and God reminded me of what he had told me ever since I was really little. But it didn't feel as scary this time. I went with it, and I told God, ‘This is what you want from me. Just help me, guide me through it. I have absolutely no idea what to do.’”

After much research, prayer and discernment, Olvera plans to become a consecrated virgin in the future.

“I'm looking forward to consecrating myself within the Catholic Church. I just haven't been able to because I have so many things to do … but I was telling (a friend) not too long ago that I just feel like it's what I need to do — my consecration — to be able to live my life comfortably.”

But it took much discerning to reach this point. Over the last few years, as Olvera’s friends began to get married and start families, Olvera was anxious about her own future. 

“I remember I told God, ‘I don't know how this will work. All my friends are getting married, everyone's going to eventually be married and then I'm going to be alone. I don't think you want me to be alone.’ And then God would just constantly remind me, ‘You're not going to be alone. I'm going to be with you the whole time.”

Olvera’s family and friends struggled to understand that Olvera considered herself to be in a relationship with her faith. They often tried to steer her toward married and religious vocations. 

“I respect nuns a lot because I could never do that,” Olvera said. “I know that I couldn’t do it because I’m the type of person who loves loving Jesus in my ordinary life. … I have to be constantly moving.”


Weddings and career

Elizabeth Reha, director of family life at the Diocese of Little Rock, has noticed a growing trend of single people. 

“We’re definitely seeing the trend with the number of weddings declining,” Reha said. “You’ll hear single people reference their family of origin that they didn’t see a successful marriage or a peaceful marriage or a happy marriage, and so they don’t want to make the same mistakes.”

Reha said the pandemic had repercussions of many people normalizing being alone as well as younger generations not being in a rush to make big life decisions. 

“I think also the younger generation looks at their older selves as having plenty of time, and then that time goes by,” Reha said.

Reha also said developments in financial, educational and career opportunities for women, in particular, have led to smaller families, and in turn, less opportunity to practice parenting and familial roles. 

“If there’s not as many children, you don’t get to practice taking care of a niece or a nephew,” Reha said. “Then you start hearing, ‘I don’t want to have children.’ Sometimes it’s a combination of things that make being on their own comfortable. Maybe having a poor experience with a partner, or having a bad experience with family, and even the dating process is so different now.”

Reha said she faced many challenges as a single person directing marriage preparation and family life courses because of her status as a single person. 

“It’s always been a challenge for a single woman, non-religious, non-married, to find their place in the Church,” Reha said. “Luckily, the Church has been broadening so that it allows those single men and women to be able to do ministry. I think we have a long way to go, but I think we’re going in the right direction. … I went to the (former bishop, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain) and said, ‘How do you feel about your family life director being single and doing marriage preparation?’ And he said, “Well, I’m not married.’”

Reha believes there is pressure on young single people to discern a married or religious vocation, but not as much willingness to involve single people in familial or Church activities. 

“I think there’s that pressure to go ahead and get married or become religious … I want to remind couples that there are people like me who need the opportunity to be with family, so invite them. I heard long ago, when I had the singles ministry (in my office), that a single person had gone to a parish and always wanted to take the gifts up, but the ushers never asked the single people to bring up the gifts. I think that’s something we can recognize easily in our parishes.” 


Focused on careers

“Marie” is a 26-year-old singer who attends the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, who wishes to remain anonymous. She recalls being confused about vocations based on how they were taught in parochial school.

“I remember that we discussed vocations, and it was talked about really often that people were sometimes called to a single life,” Marie said. “I think it’s a valid thing for people to choose, being single for the sake of doing the good you want to do in the world. Sometimes (marriage) also just doesn’t happen for people. 

“I thought there were three or four different vocations, depending on whether you were a man or a woman, based on how vocations were taught to me in parochial school. For women, there’s married life, religious life or single life, and if you’re a man, it’s the priesthood, or religious life and married (at the same time, in the case of deacons), or married or single. So if singlehood isn’t a vocation, that’s new to me.”

For Marie, focus on school and her career outweigh romance and relationships. 

“I’m still in a degree program, so the physical time it would take to date someone right now … it doesn’t fit in very well with grad school and work and outside projects,” Marie said. “It doesn’t necessarily seem very conducive to a good dating life because you want to give someone the time that they deserve instead of fitting them into your schedule somewhere. 

“To be honest, I’m not looking at the moment, which doesn’t mean I’m not open to the idea of dating someone, but I’m not actively trying to. I’m sure someday I will feel like I would like to date someone, but right now, at least with the people I’m surrounded by, there aren’t many eligible Catholic bachelors.”

Marie has noticed the trend of growing singlehood in her own age group, and some parishioners have tried to sway her one way or another. 

“I know there are some people who are dating, but I know everyone is waiting much longer to get married,” Marie said. “Several years ago, I think the average age of marriage was probably much lower. Every so often, one of the older people in the parish will ask, ‘Do you have a boyfriend yet?’ But I’m not horribly offended by that. I always tell them, ‘If you can find me one, you’re welcome to bring him to me.’” 

Marie suggests a reevaluation of the term “vocation” in the Church. 

“I think we really need to redefine ‘vocation’ because of the secular sense of the word, in which a vocation is just a craft that you’re putting your life toward,” Marie said. “Woodworking is a vocation. I think that word has been taught as basically whatever you’re dedicating your life toward. 

“The idea of having one vocation as a disciple of Christ is taught in parochial school as more of a collective mission of the Church, to be disciples of Christ, and then a vocation is a subsect of that mission. I think the word ‘vocation’ has been used incorrectly. … It doesn’t seem like what vocations actually are lines up with the way that we use it in the Church.”


35 and older

Jessica Petter, 35, is the director of faith formation for seventh-12th graders at St. Stephen Church in Bentonville, director of Catholic Young Adults in Northwest Arkansas and the area contact for the Arkansas and Oklahoma region for Life Teen International. Petter stays busy in her home parish, St. Elizabeth Church in Eureka Springs. 

“I enjoy working for the Church. I enjoy building up a community of youth ministry, and I love to give back to my home parish. All really beautiful things,” Petter said. “But there’s this idea that because I’m not married, and I don’t have kids, I’m obliged to do this, or that I intend to do this forever.”

Petter said she’s been single the majority of her adult life because dating as a devout Catholic presents its own unique difficulties. 

“I really think my adult relationships are rooted in identity,” Petter said. “I am very confident, 100,000 percent, that I’m God’s beloved daughter. Know thyself. For me to find a spouse, my number one criterion is that you love Jesus and you know he loves you. And I don’t think a lot of people are in as good a relationship with Christ and the Church as we would like to believe by looking at the peripheral numbers.”

Petter said as a teenager, she fell away from the Church, but when she returned as a 21-year-old, parishioners were eager to nudge her toward a religious vocation. 

“I think considering religious life is important … But I distinctly remember people asking if I had considered becoming a religious sister or a nun when I had already done the prayer work and was a thousand percent confident that I was not called to religious life.”

Petter wants to get married and be a mother “more than anything.” 

“I am confident in my discernment, and I don’t think I missed the boat. I am clinging to the Scripture verse that when the time is right, the Lord will make it happen,” Petter said. “I have no idea when that’s going to be, but I trust that it’s going to be. But when people don’t see that happening quantitatively in your life as I get older, they’re like, ‘Oh, are you still clinging to this idea?’

“It can be really discouraging, because I think I have a really full, abundant life. I love the work that I do. I have wonderful friends. I go to Disney World more often than the average person gets to. I have a cat that I adore. I have a good, full life. And it can be really difficult to articulate that to people, because I think it gets lost in this waiting period of just waiting for your boat.”

For Petter and other single Catholics, the pressure of discernment and feeling misplaced in the Church can be agonizing. 

“I can speak from personal experience about how I have agonized over this and have wept over this and have felt like I have done something wrong because there’s not a box that I fit into,” Petter said. 

Petter believes there needs to be a better way to teach vocations. 

“Look at the vocation materials for working with teens. We talk about vocations a lot because, as a young person, they should be considering their vocations and praying for these things … But when you look through the books, there will be one line on the single life, and literal chapters on married and religious life. … Jesus is the high priest, the model for us all. But he had friends and a family and a full, abundant life. That wasn’t lacking because he wasn’t married and he wasn’t the priest of the temple. What box would we put Jesus in?”

Ben Rowse, a 38-year-old parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Bentonville, once discerned a religious vocation at the encouragement of his pastor during his senior year of high school. For the next two years, he agonized over whether or not he had made the right decision. Ultimately, Rowse discerned out of the seminary.

“I’m very at peace with where I’m at now in that decision,” Rowse said. “I discerned extensively, I mean, a lot of prayer on that. I felt peace with the decision to leave, and I felt that same peace about leaving ever since.”

Rowse said he is actively pursuing dating now after focusing on his personal life over the last few years. 

“It’s kind of tough to find someone who aligns with my core Catholic beliefs, because there’s just not many people in this area who are Catholic,” Rowse said. “I’m open to dating non-Catholics, but oftentimes something within my core system of beliefs conflicts with theirs, so it winds up not working out.”

Rowse said while trends of people staying single are on the upswing, he is still asked by family members if he plans on getting married. While Rowse is involved in his parish, he said there were times “some people have expected me to do more, because I’m single.” Rowse said he has learned to get involved, but sets reasonable expectations for involvement in his parish. 

“I’m 38, and I still don’t know what my vocation is,” Rowse said with a laugh. “One of the biggest things that’s been helpful to me is continuing to put myself out there and … not letting rejection get you down. … and taking whatever feelings of discouragement or stress or fear I have and bringing that to God. Praying about it and figuring it out and working through it.”


A new perspective

Fortunately, Hines and other theological experts offer a fresh perspective for looking at vocations that might help more single Catholics find peace.

“A better way to look at vocation is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1533,” Hines said. “We all have ‘the common vocation of all Christ's disciples, a vocation to holiness and to the mission of evangelizing the world.’”

Father Andrew Hart, JCL, diocesan theological advisor, said the basic call to holiness should be every Catholic’s main vocation. 

“In the light of the world and the circumstances we find ourselves in now, there’s been a broadened understanding of how one can live out our basic call to holiness that we all have a main vocation, to be holy and to seek God and to seek to serve God, and how to do that in ways that don’t fit neatly into one of those three (vocational) boxes,” Father Hart said. “What we do need to think about is God’s timing, and not rush into something. We can get caught in a crisis of discernment and never make a decision. For some people, discernment becomes a vocation in itself.”

Hines proposes a call to holiness and discipleship in Christ as everyone’s primary vocation, while understanding that specializations, such as religious vows, marital vows and consecrated virginity, exist within the vocation to be a disciple of Christ. 

“We would all do well to concentrate on our common vocation,” Hines said, “to be disciples of Christ.”

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