Pew Isolation

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I recently had dinner with three fabulous girls. One is married, the other two are single. Our conversation turned towards the single life and we discussed how one of the most difficult things for a single girl is attending Sunday Mass. You walk into church  and find yourself in a pew surrounded by families on all sides, or worse, you find yourself sitting completely alone. No one talks to you and no one reaches out. One of my friends said, “Sometimes I feel like I smell or something, people don’t even sit by me.”

I know the feeling. There are countless of Sunday Masses that I sat through alone, the only words exchanged between my neighbors and me were “Peace be with you”. Ironic isn’t it? The one place we are meant to be in communion – with Jesus, the church and one another – is the one place where we can feel the most isolated.

My friends and I talked about how some of our Protestant brothers and sisters have got it right on. Have you ever attended one of their services? You instantaneously become their best friend and find yourself at their house the following Tuesday for Bible Study and the next Friday for a cookout. They get it. They reach out. They understand fellowship.

I think more recently priests have tried to reach out into their parishes as well. Some will invite the congregation at the beginning of Mass to stand and greet their neighbor. Others might initiate coffee and donuts after Mass. These are great efforts on the part of the priest and the parish, but they still fall short. What matters is the people.

I understand that I need to take initiative too. I have made efforts. I have volunteered (a great start to get plugged in) and have willingly introduced myself to others. But again, it falls short. We are made not for surface relationships but something greater.

So what is the answer? What is the church to do? There are efforts with young adult groups and the like but I think the answer comes down to family. We are a church family and we belong to one another.

In the past 16 years, I have been welcomed into countless of families all around the country. From Texas to Colorado, Virginia and Minnesota. My friends Margaret and David whom I lived with in Texas back in 2003, and more recently lived near in the past two years, have generously opened their home and hearts to me. At least once a week I would spend time with them, having dinner at their house, attending one of their kids’ swim meets, or just stopping by in the late evening to play a game or to chat. It was being a part of this family that made it much easier for me to live so far away from mine. I am grateful to them and the other countless families that have taken me in over the years like my friend Shawn and her two daughters, the Kings and the Birds out in Aspen and Margaret and David both in Texas and Virginia.

Families are the bedrock of society and are integral to the Church.

 “‘The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church.’ It is a community of faith, hope, and charity; it assumes singular importance in the Church, as is evident in the New Testament.” – CCC 2204

I wish the church would offer more programs where we could incorporate families and singles together, and not just for the singles because it works both ways. You become sort of like an adopted aunt. In the past two years Margaret knew she could call me to watch the kids, stay overnight, check on the mail, pick up some groceries etc. But she also knew that I needed them: to help put the Christmas decorations up, to be a part of their Thanksgiving tree and to get the late night ice cream. I am grateful for that.

So what can we do? Reach out to a person who is single in your church. Invite them over for dinner. Invite them to Sunday Mass with you. If you are single, look for a family who might benefit from having some extra hands. Offer to babysit or run an errand. Or just let them know that you are around if they need anything. I can just imagine the moms out there reading this right now. “I would give anything for one Mass with no distractions.” The grass isn’t always greener and we must give ourselves the room to grow where we are planted. However, if we can cultivate a place for true community, perhaps the singles won’t be so alone and those moms might be able to steal some much needed moments of quiet meditation.

What are some other ways for the church to reach out to singles? How can the church create a better sense of community? What are your ideas?

Molly

Molly

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41 thoughts on “Pew Isolation”

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    Hi, I totally recognize myself in the awkward situation described but in my case I’m at the church always by myself not because I’m single but because my husband/friends/family living close by are not Catholic. I tried to break the ice participating in some church activities. Overall I think that when the community is big there is not much closeness between members; people are afraid to get involved in more than skin deep relationships, particularly with people that are in the church without any connection and just for the Mass. Sometimes I get frustrated but then I suddenly remember that, no matter what, He is always waiting for me.

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      Yes, it is not just single people who find themselves alone in the church, it would be great to work together and build more community though. I, too have found that when it is a larger parish, there is not as much closeness. Amen! Jesus in the Eucharist is always there! Such consolation and solace is found. Thanks for your posting.

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        My parish is the fourth largest in the Boston Archdiocese. Whether I go to this function or that depends on when it is and who is going to be there. I like kids-mostly little girls because I was one once myself, but only one at a time.

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    It will be a great help if everyone at Mass is not only invited, but really expected to attend a coffee-and-donut social after every Mass. It is one of the greatest things I encountered when, through my convert wife, I entered the Anglican Ordinariate. The Parish family goes to Mass and then has some social time together. I suppose it’s part of the “Anglican patrimony” that Pope Benedict thought will enrich the wider Church.

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      That would not help. I cannot drink coffee (I’m hyper enough as it is and it gives me headaches) and donuts are not healthy. I must be very careful what I eat.

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        I believe it was Paul that said that one of the reasons Christians meet together is for ‘encouragement’ so it is a requirement. How do we do this. The Mass is for worshiping God and really isn’t conducive to visiting. There needs to be another way we can do this. If anyone has an idea better than a time after mass to visit, I would love to hear it but for now…

        I am not sure that literal ‘Coffee and donuts’ is not what Sir Louis means. At my parish we have a ‘Coffee and Donuts’ with Coffee, juice, water, donuts, fruit, vegetables, buns, etc. They try to make it work for everyone. Personally, after Mass I try to look for singles that I don’t recognize. I try to make conversation but as a foot in the mouth shy person, I just ask them if they regularly attend. If not I ask where they are visiting from etc. This works fine but being by myself, it is difficult for me to go any further. Most of the single visitors are women so I can’t invite them for lunch or something. If anyone has any ideas on how to proceed, I would love to hear them.

        Another issue with the Coffee and Donuts thing is that I would say that about a quarter the congregation turns out for the ‘Coffee and Donuts’ and about half for the lunch. The problem is that we have a poor parish with only 300 parishioners so the food is all donated. Sometimes (rarely) there is no one available to sponsor it, so it then turns into a literal ‘Coffee and Donuts’ but that doesn’t stop people from coming down to visit and encourage each other.

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        singleCatholicgirl

        I think the idea that Renata shared is great, a monthly dinner where anyone who wants to sign up can. Singles, married, men, women, etc. Perhaps you could propose that to the church council or faith formation director at your parish. You could even volunteer to host the first one! 🙂 It could even be a light potluck.

        My sister’s church (Protestant) has a potluck one Sunday a month. Whoever is planning on staying after the service will bring a dish to share. It works out great.

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        Monthly is better than nothing at all, but I find the weekly is even better. Some don’t make it one week but do the next, within a couple months time we have seen about 80% of the parish in one of these after mass get togethers. Our parish has tripled in size in the last 7 years in an older part of town. Pretty much unheard of especially when you consider that we use the Extraordinary form of the mass (Latin) which most Catholic don’t care for since they are used to the vernacular masses.

        (Of course, some would say that it is because of Extraordinary Form masses that we are growing so much, but that is a different discussion.)

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    Whoa! The mass is not social time! The kiss of peace, according to the rubrics of the GIRM, is supposed to be offered “soberly”. The mass is about adoring God as a community. After mass is the time for socializing. I was single until I was almost 33 and I went to thousands of masses by myself and it didn’t bother me a bit because I was focused on the Lord during mass. Outside of mass I took it upon MYSELF to get involved in many parish activities. The Protestant services are social events because they don’t have Jesus there. Socialization is all they have so of course it takes center stage. But outside of mass, everyone, both single and married, can do a better job of reaching out. When I was single I reached out to singles and marrieds and I didn’t wait for them to come to me. I had lots of great Catholic friends because I forced myself to be assertive even though I was always a naturally shy person. I feel more isolated as a stay-at-home mom than I ever felt as a single.

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      MM, I’m sorry that you feel more isolated as a stay-at-home mom. Perhaps there is a single gal in the church who could become an ‘adopted aunt’, a win-win situation! 🙂

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      Sit down and take a breath, MM! 😉 She’s not talking about turning the Mass into a circus. I am a “floater” so I’ve seen the way things work in different parishes. The one I have attended lately asks people to greet each other *before* the Mass begins, and has coffee and donuts *after* (well, that seems like a no-brainer but I thought I’d reiterate it anyway). At the college campus, the group is small and close, so we actually do exchange a light hug at the sign of peace. I am an introvert so I don’t care if I am mostly left alone. On the other hand, I don’t like to feel radioactive either. I wonder if this whole personal space bubble is unique to the West or if it is found in other cultures.

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      MM, I’m so glad you made this point about Mass not being social time. It pains me to no end at the parish I go to on Sunday when I see the older people idly chat to one another in Church. They think it cute when someone is actually on their knees praying in preparation for Mass. The ordinary is both within the Church walls and outside of it. Shame. I just want to bellow: “This is not a community hall people!”
      Molly, from my experience, It’s hard to get involved with the parish when you’re past the random age of what is considered youth – 16-35. In my experience, parishes are so obsessed with the youth that singles like me (almost 40) find getting involved difficult – actually, more to the point, non-existant. Appears over 35 are more apathetic than I thought.

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        In my parish the older people (our generation) goes to the 4 pm mass (few children except for first communion and first confirmation classes. The 7 am is what I call the Geritol crowd, too early and I’m not THAT old yet. At the 4 pm, all the elderly with their wheeled walkers…that’s OUR ‘holy rollers’. Old enough to be my own grandparent.

      2. Avatar
        singleCatholicgirl

        I think there are some Dioceses who are starting to reach out to an older crowd now too. I, too, have seen so much focused on the youth and even college. Thankfully young adult ministry has taken off too. But like you said, past 40…there is a lull. I think the majority of church goers do have families to attend to, so they are not as available. I still think the monthly dinners would be a great idea (see Renata’s post below). And as I’ve found, if you want something done, volunteer to start it yourself! 🙂

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        I have tried to introduce a book club where over 35 gather and read a spiritual book and then discuss with the priest. No go. I also suggested a prayer group to pray for priests and religious and that didn’t get much enthusiasm either. Over 35 should be encouraged to gather and learn their faith because we are basically the offspring of the baby-boomers – poorly catechised, lost in our modern independence…and, selfish to boot.
        I will suggest the monthly dinner. Thanks.

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      If I may, can I “whoa” to the “whoa.” Jesus is not absent from a community of baptized Christians gathered in worship, even if they be our Protestant brothers and sisters in Chirst. Yes, as Catholics we know of the centrality of the sacrament of the eucharist to our faith and worship. But it does not mean that in a different way Christ is not present when two or three are gathered in His name.
      Our Protestant brothers and sisters do not just socialize at Sunday service. They hear the Word of God proclaimed from Scripture. They renew their baptismal promises. They pray the prayer Christ taught them. They affirm the basics of the Christian faith in the symbols of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. All of this is good, spiritually beneficial and admirable.
      Our divisions are real and are sad to us. But as Pope Paul said “so much more unites us than divides us.” Hence, all true Christians pray that “all be made one.”

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    The purpose of the Holy Mass is to worship The Lord, not each other. Leave your ego at home and approach in humility. Idle chit chat and donuts can wait, your soul is at stake.

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      I’ve never seen anybody having coffee and donuts during the Mass. It *does* wait — until after. There’s nothing wrong with it then.

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        I go alone all the time yet I never feel lonely at Church what with all the saints and the Holy Family. Perhaps if I just focused on me a little more, I might sympathize with this issue.

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    Great article! Great subject matter! I too always felt so alone at church on Sundays as a single. Everyone seemed to be with a special someone or be a part of a family. So my being single, and being at Mass alone, felt even more lonely than everyday life when people are coming & going on their own all the time. Even weekday Masses were easier because often people came on their own and after celebrating together the Mass, it was very natural for a variety of people to stay after and mingle for a bit. This is a good reminder of that. One thing our church started doing to help us get to know more people better at our parish is organizing monthly dinners at different parishoner’s homes. People who are interested in participating sign up. If they’re willing to host, they volunteer. Then a mixture of singles & families are matched up. This is a great way to meet people and to get to know them in a relaxed environment over a meal. My only other idea for Sundays is that the church socials (e.g. donuts & coffee after Mass) could be more structured to where the goal of meeting new people is explained and encouraged at the close of Mass. It would be helpful to have a few volunteers on the lookout for those who are alone and to introduce them to people since I think most of us naturally stick to socializing with those we already know. Thanks for bringing up a very important subject!

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    When I came back to the Church after many years (long story), instead of expecting others to make me feel more at home, I made it my mission to
    be the ‘welcoming committee’. I am also very shy but yet I thought to myself, what can I do for God as a lone Catholic. What can I do that is extremely hard for me to show my love for God and will be a service to him and my fellow Catholics? Jesus suffered and died for me. How can I overcome my shyness to do this mission.

    I go to a Latin Mass parish and though they don’t have the ‘Sign of Peace’ or chit chat prior to mass, they do make an effort to reach out to faces we don’t recognize and singles after mass. My wife is not Catholic and wouldn’t set foot in a Catholic Church, so I might as well be single, but worse than being single, I can’t associate with women because of being married. (My wife’s request.) Thus my sphere is restricted even further. Thankfully, they have coffee and donuts as well as a lunch after masses.

    The mass is for worshiping God. But us Catholics could reach out a lot more. Those of us that are alone or single need to become the welcoming committees of our Church and thus make friends and help God in a major way.

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      Perhaps there is a men’s group you could join? Or a weekly or monthly Bible Study? Thanks for being a part of the ‘welcoming committee’!

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    Just to follow up on a few of the comments here. This post is about brining singles and families together within the church, as in the body of Christ, not just in the pew at Mass, but outside of it.

    Yes! I whole heartedly agree that the Mass is about worship. I in no way intended to say that we should be talking during Mass. Perhaps the comment about the only thing that is said is the sign of peace. I realize that Mass is not for chatter!

    However, the church is a family and once Mass is over, there is time for outreach and evangelization. My experience is that the majority of people leave without speaking to anyone (again, I am not saying that those who are in quiet prayer should be engaging into conversation with others or that one needs to leave Mass right away to engage in conversation). What I am saying is that outside of the liturgy and sanctuary there can be a place to create community and should be. Hence the idea like Renata mentioned above.

    As stated above, I have taken great initiatives to create community. I have worked for the church for over 10 years and volunteered on many levels, in many different roles, including leading women’s groups and organizing potlucks. I have stepped outside of my comfort box and introduced myself to others, including those that were alone or seemed like they were looking for someone to speak with. For me, becoming sort of like an adopted aunt to a family from church has made a huge difference.

    As for the Protestant services, I am speaking of afterwards when people introduce themselves and stay after to socialize outside. I am not talking about during the service. The Protestant services I have been to do not encourage talking during worship either.

    So what are some other ways to bring families and singles together?

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    Again, great article and I think it is extremely important. We Catholic must have community because us humans are very social.

    I love the older churches with the high altars, statues, and very reverent atmosphere. The problem I see with them is that they were built when the Catholic community was established already. We may have belonged to a Irish, Italian, German, whatever community and thus there was no need for an area to talk.

    The nice thing about newer churches is that they general include an area for visiting. I have seen some newer Churches where they have added a structure to the side of the Church for visiting. The problem I have seen with these is they are generally wide open to the Church and close to the altar. The problem is that those that want to pray prior to Mass or after Mass to thank God for the wonderful gift you have just received, can’t because of the distracting talk going on.

    Back in my home town in Wisconsin, almost all of the Churches are old, so no place to visit. It would be wonderful if these parishes could afford to build a visiting area off the rear of the Church, kind of a lobby area. Just a thought.

    1. Avatar
      singleCatholicgirl

      Good points! Perhaps hosting things are different peoples homes could work well. But I also think a lot of parishes now have church halls for socializing. I am in Wisconsin and a lot of the churches up here do. But a church hall is very different than a space to congregate just outside of the sanctuary…and Wisconsin weather isn’t the best for socializing outside about 9 months out of the year. haha

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    Being a mom of older kids, my husband and I found it difficult to meet and get to know other parishioners when we first joined our parish 4 years ago. Our parish has a lot of young families with children going to the same school or are in the same CCD classes, so they had a lot of commonalities. We too wondered how to meet others until we joined the Parish bible studies. Not only do we do something that we love in learning more about our Lord and scripture, but we have met wonderful people of all ages who have been such a joy and very welcoming! I am now co-facilitating a bible study this summer. This has opened up many avenues to get involved with the church, get to know the parish staff and our priest better as well as meet other parishioners. If your Parish doesn’t have bible studies, then start one yourself (Jeff Cavins is a great resource for this). Or how about starting a Catholic book club or a singles monthly dinner night. My point is not to wait for someone to approach you. Take the initiative yourself – go to the office and ask if they can direct you to Parish activities or like-minded parishioners or how to start something yourself. You’d be amazed how many people feel the same way as you do and have no idea how to meet people, especially since our Mass is designed to worship our Lord and not to socialize during the mass (and rightly so!). We are, however, a FAMILY and COMMUNITY of believers and worshippers; it’s just looking for and finding the right avenues for this. Most churches have many areas where you can meet people while serving the Church, bible studies, pot lucks, bingo, pancake breakfasts, etc. Just jump in, and you’ll be amazed on how welcoming everyone is! Good luck and God bless!

    1. Avatar
      singleCatholicgirl

      Bible Studies are such a great way to build community and strengthen your faith (Jeff Cavins one being phenomenal). And you are right, many parishes do host a variety of activities and all one needs to do is jump in. I do think the smaller groups (like Bible Studies) are more conducive for building relationships/community than the larger gatherings. Thanks for posting!

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    I have social problems (I don’t get along with anyone) and in fact do not like it when the church is crowded. Indeed, I rather have very few or no people next to me. I also get easily distracted with children which is why I prefer the 4 pm mass when it’s mostly adults. If I was the only one in the parish for mass, that would suit me just fine.

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    Do you understand what the Mass is? It is a warp of the time-space continuum when we are literally transported back to the sacrifice at Calvary. We are there to worship God, thank Him and be mortified for our sins. It is not a social meet and greet. There should be NO conversation within the sacristy. Period.

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      Hello wyllow, please see the comment above that I posted as a follow up. It seems that people either did not read the entire article or only took one or two sentences to take the article meaning that I think there should be socializing during the liturgy, which is not the case. I do not think there should be socializing during the Mass, but there should be an effort as a church family to build community. Thanks!

      “Just to follow up on a few of the comments here. This post is about brining singles and families together within the church, as in the body of Christ, not just in the pew at Mass, but outside of it…”

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    I have never appreciated being “greeted” on command at the beginning of Mass. It’s a very forced gesture. “Now turn and say to the person who’s been sitting there all this time that you haven’t felt moved to greet yet.” A lot like a parent demanding an insincere apology to a neighbour kid out of their youngster.

    More natural to me are the helpful people in the vestibule at Eastern Rite parishes who hand out liturgy books to people they don’t recognize, greet and welcome them with a smile, and orient them about what will be prayed today. They understand that the Liturgy may be intimidating and strange to many. For some reason, we forget that ours might be just the same to a lapsed Catholic or inquirer. But you walk into the nave feeling comfortable, welcomed, and at home, while not disturbing the preparatory prayer of the faithful or being the object of universal scrutiny when all eyes turn to you in “welcome.”

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      Oh, yes, and they usually have a potluck lunch after Mass most (or many) Sundays (always at least Coffee and Donuts). That is a terrific idea. 🙂

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    Not to resurrect a topic that’s been dormant so long (no Easter Season pun intended), but I’ve just discovered the site….

    As that weird mid-30s single guy wandering my parish, how I’ve found a way to deal with ‘pew isolation’ is to actually take advantage of not having to take care of children in the pew with me to volunteer to help out with basically whichever lay ministry they need a hand with during the mass short of actual lectoring. I’m usually not actually IN a pew nowadays, rather ushering latecomers to available seats through the mass and helping run the collection of gifts (as an extraordinary minister, that also puts me in place to be the guy who naturally runs up when they need an extra hand to distribute, rather than make a backup dealing a small child have to fight her way up). So, I guess, during the mass itself, being their alone has surprising benefits — and opportunities. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t *gladly* trade them for marital bliss and the joy of fatherhood, but I’m just saying that you don’t have to just sit there alone in a pew if you’re willing to lend a hand around the church.

    And as for that coffee and donut thing? Given that lonely singles don’t get to enjoy big family brunches, those few minutes of chatting with fellow parishioners over coffee and donuts in the narthex after mass, before *they* run off to their big Sunday family brunches are like a part of natural theology… 😉

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