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Singles ministry more than match-making


“We are not a dating service,” states the simple brochure of the Vermont Catholic Singles. But the organizers don’t rule out the chance its members might fall in love. “Couples have met through this group and have since married,” said Lorei Dawson, one of the coordinators.

Why would single men and women join specifically Catholic social groups? “Because they’re looking for people who share their moral values,” said Deirdre Murphy, a leading light in the young adult singles group in St. Matthew’s Parish in San Antonio, Texas.

People come because “they want a deeper involvement in the parish and to establish community,” said Robin La Moria, family minister who organizes the Formerly Married and Singles Group at St. Vincent de Paul parish in Federal Way, Wash.

“Singles want to belong. There’s a hunger to be connected,” said Fr. John Cusick in Chicago. Cusick runs the archdiocese’s Young Adult Ministry program.

But not all singles groups have the same membership criteria. While Vermont Catholic Singles wants to provide “a spiritual and social setting for Catholics 21 years and over who have never been married or had an annulment,” other Catholic singles groups include the previously married and the widowed, while elsewhere some Catholic parishes include singles outreach as part of the ministry to all young Catholic adults, single or not.

Lots of activites

For $9 a year, Vermont Catholic Singles (the state is one diocese) have day-trips to Montreal, water-rafting in Maine, hiking, camping and snowshoeing. In the Oakland, Calif., diocese, where Paula Wujak coordinates singles events in three parishes, the best attended event is the baseball game, which draws close to 50 people.

Wujak has about 200 names on her mailing list, between 10 and 20 people attend the monthly workshops on spirituality, Taizé prayer or mission work opportunities. Vermont singles are offered monthly spiritual events that include celebrating Marian feast days, discussion on prayer, a rosary crusade and a Barn Mass during the Christmas season.

A problem for the Vermont Catholics, says Dawson, are the distances involved when one diocese covers the entire state. Nonetheless, most events attract two or three dozen singles. In San Antonio’s St. Matthew’s parish, with 6,000 families the largest in the archdiocese, there are two singles groups -- one for the over 40s, one for those who are younger.

Deirdre Murphy has returned to the younger group after a two-year hiatus that resulted from job pressures. While there was no interruption in the group’s weekly Friday evening dinner, Murphy said, “We’re stepping up the spiritual and faith-building part to two Wednesdays a month.”

Love and Marriage

Murphy said there are 100 names on her list, about 30 active members and much energy going into attracting more. Have any of the St. Matthew’s meetings meant couples falling in love and marrying?

“Oh sure,” said Murphy, “I can think of three couples right off the top of my head and I know there’s more than that.”

And so it is in Federal Way, Wash.?

“Lots of marriages,” said La Moria. “I’ve worked in the parish 20 years and I’d say at least a dozen.”

The Seattle archdiocese holds an annual Mass for divorced and separated people, followed by a potluck and discussion that “centers on their healing.” The annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner dance is well-attended.

Divorced and separated Catholics within a singles group have a wide range of needs. Ann Durocher in St. Mary’s Parish, Downers Grove, Ill., handles outreach to divorced and separated Catholics in one of the Joliet diocesan clusters. She became involved gradually when her own marriage ended, and she faced raising four children alone. She utilized support groups to get through the divorce.

Durocher first got involved through her two older children who were enrolled in the school-based Rainbows program, a healing program for children going through loss such as divorce. Durocher trained as a facilitator, served as facilitator for the parents group and then became program coordinator.

When St. Mary’s became the center of a nine-parish group for divorced, separated and widowed persons, Durocher urged that it be nondenominational.

Eighty-five people attended the first meeting, “in dead of winter with a wind-chill factor of minus 28 degrees,” she said. The nondenominational group meets every second Tuesday and opens and closes with a prayer. About half the membership is Catholic.

“Spiritual but not overbearing,” is how Durocher describes it. “Candles, music playing to calm people down in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We end saying the Our Father, holding hands.”

More people needed

Even during the summer, attendance averages 35 people and will double in the fall, she said. Social events include pizza nights out and movies. “I desperately need more people helping out,” Durocher said. “We take monthly surveys, and people would like the meetings to go to every other week. We’re moving toward small groups with professional speakers. The next topics are anger, how to get along with the ex-spouse and family, and how to deal with the child going through divorce or loss.”

This past summer Durocher attended the annual gathering of the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics. She returned with $75 worth of books and tapes, exhilarated by the spirituality-enhancing workshops -- and the fact that it was the first time in 13 years she’d had time to pursue something on her own.

It was easy to see what Durocher meant. During our telephone interview, with the help of her 13-year-old daughter, she was overseeing her own younger children and others in the day-care service she runs.

“Children are a major topic at our meetings,” she said.

Not so, however, in the singles program run by Chicago’s Fr. Cusick. His group is mostly singles in their 20s and 30s. “They’re an interesting sociological read,” he said. “This is not an age group that’s necessarily parochial, but they’re not any less Catholic.”

Cusick said there’s frustration on both sides of the Catholic singles equation. Parishes are frustrated because “they cannot find” singles, he said. “And there are those who say their parish deals with only two groups -- school-age families and seniors.”

Cusick sees a need for something “extra-parochial and yet extremely Catholic” for singles. “There are parishes that attract singles in their 20s and 30s. They’re market friendly to that crowd.”

But singles continue to confound. “As amazingly non-parochial as many young people will claim to be, they’ll tell you they’re not attending a program because ‘that’s not in my parish.’ I tell them, ‘Get in your car.’ “

Cusick’s program sponsors an annual conference for young adult Catholics. Called FOCUS, it is billed as the nation’s largest single-day gathering of such folk (NCR, May 29).

Chicago is now into its 18th year of a program called “Theology on Tap,” four weeks of theology in the summer at 15 different parishes attended by a couple of thousand people every week.

“I subscribe to the ‘less is more’ theory,” said Cusick. “A few things done well. We’re not a surrogate social life.”

When Chicago wrapped up this past summer’s Theology on Tap in the cathedral, at a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Francis George, it was standing room only.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998