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A single vocation

30 November, 1999

There seems to be only two vocations spoken of in the Church: to marriage or to religious life. What about single celibate people, who neither want to marry nor take Holy Orders or enter a relig­ious congregation? Could ‘singledom’ be described as a vocation? John.

It is true that the two vocations mainly spoken about in the Church are marriage and relig­ious life with the result that the fulfilled single life that so many people live is largely a forgotten topic in religious literature and discussion. However we should not forget that the goodness of single people has not been over­looked.

Single and heroic
Among the more than four hun­dred lay men and women beatified or canonized by the late Pope John Paul II many were single. In our own times the heroic virtue of both Venerable Matt Talbot (1856­1925) and Edel Quinn (1907-1944) has been officially recognized and the Cause of the Servant of God, Frank Duff (1889-1980), founder of the Legion of Mary has been recently introduced.

All three were single people who walked closely in the foot­steps of Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Venerable Matt, a working man whose excessive drinking led to problems in his early life, is now known worldwide for his sub­sequent asceticism. He changed so radically in his late twenties that the rest of his life took the form of an extraordinary re­sponse to Christ’s warning that ‘unless you do penance you will likewise perish’ (Lk 13:3). Co Cork-born Edel, both a competitive and competent tennis player and according to the Frenchman who fell in love with her, ‘a sylph-like dancer’, spent the last years of her short life (she was only 37 when she died) spreading the Gospel around East Africa, in spite of debilitating tuberculosis.

Frank Duff, a highly-placed civil servant, abandoned a promising career to spend his life in the service of the poor and marginal­ized. His work was so blessed that it turned into the Legion of Mary which still mobilizes millions of other lay people like himself in the cause of evange­lization around the globe.

To these three ‘singles’ we could add a fourth: John Anthony McGuinness, a civil servant and member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul who combined Matt Talbot-like austerity with selfless dedication to the Dublin poor. 

Completion of baptism
None of these three people felt called to the Sacraments of Matrimony or Holy Orders nor did any of them take religious vows. All of them, however, in early adulthood became aware that at baptism, the first of the Christian sacraments, they had received a vocation.

The late distinguished Irish writer Mary Purcell, single herself and an exemplary lay Christian suggested that the reason for not having ‘Amen’ in the baptismal formula was to indicate that the real ‘Amen’ was to be a life in keeping with the sacrament. This seems to have been the mind of the Church from the earliest days. Evidence for this appears in an inscription over a tomb in the ancient catacombs at Rome: ‘He has completed his baptism’.

A truly Christian death was seen as the completion of a journey that began at baptism. This is still true today. Whether we are married, religiously vowed or single, we have all still the same vocation. ‘This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn15:12).

Body of Christ
To love one another is the vocation of all Christians. Whether the word `singledom’ is approp­riate for the vocation of some of us is a moot point. It would not be if it seemed to authorize opting out from involvement in the Body of Christ of which we all are mem­bers with a specific role to play. Membership of the Body of Christ excludes anything like setting out on a ‘solo run’. If anything, the single person is called to a more self-sacrificing and even more universal love.

The unmarried person, as St. Paul noted, is free to love and serve God and a large number of others in a way that would be well-nigh impossible for those with special and unavoidable obligations to members of their immediate family circle. Don’t we all know unmarried men and women who use this freedom, not to withdraw into some form of isolation and non-involvement but to throw themselves enthusi­astically into the great Christian adventure?

Exceptional people
It has to be conceded that the qualities that led to the reputat­ion of holiness of the people mentioned above are hardly run-of-the-mill. Few so-called ‘ordinary’ single people lead lives that catch the popular imaginat­ion as did theirs. To most people Edel Quinn’s life seems more like that of an extraordinary foreign missionary in the mould of a St. Francis Xavier rather than of a modern young woman with a love for sport and dancing.

The rigorous fasting of Matt Talbot is more reminiscent of the penitential life of the legendary Cure d’Ars than of your ordinary working man who goes quietly about an honest day’s work with­out any song and dance. And Frank Duff seems more in the mould of the founder of a great religious order than of a self-effac­ing civil servant who took early retirement to do something dif­ferent.

Yet the difference between the lives of these outstanding people and those of other single people is not so much a question of kind as of degree. Like Edel, Matt, Frank, Mary and John, every one, whether married or single, has a mission in life. As Cardinal Newman puts it: ‘God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.’

One of the main fruits of prayer, something that loomed large in the lives of all the people mentioned here, is that it helps shed light for each of us on our ‘mission’. We should all pray frequently in the words of St. Paul, when suddenly over­whelmed on the road to Damascus: ‘Lord, what am I to do?’ (Acts 22:10). This was not a ‘once off’ prayer. Throughout his life he kept asking the Lord for further light as his situation and circumstances changed. If we follow this example of the great Apostle to the Gentiles we are unlikely to go too far astray.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.