SANDWICH, Mass. — Catholics are using the Internet more and more, relying on new technology for everything from dating to marriage preparation to faith formation.

At 79, Marie McGrath didn’t hold out hope that she would find another soulmate. In 2000, she lost her ailing husband after caring for him for 14 years.

“You don’t ever really expect to find happiness again,” the Cape Cod resident said.

But she has, through the help of a Catholic Internet match-making site known as Catholic Mingle. Through the site she met Bernie, an 83-year-old man who also lost his spouse in 2000.

“Neither of us expected to find this kind of happiness,” said McGrath. “He pampers me, and I let him.”

Catholic Mingle represents just one of many ways that new technology is helping to meet the needs of Catholics. Not only are Catholics meeting online, but they’re also preparing for marriage that way.

In May 2004, Christian and Christine Meert of Colorado Springs, Colo., unveiled their Catholic marriage preparation online class. While the two had presented many live classes, the online classes developed out of the needs of the engaged couples they were encountering.

“We had been doing marriage preparation in the Archdiocese of Denver at the time,” said Christian. Yet, he explained that it wasn’t working for everyone, especially couples who live great distances away. So he and his wife decided to try offering a class via e-mail. “We saw that it worked very well. Within a few weeks we encountered six more couples who were in the same situation. Based on their response, we decided to rebuild the website so that marriage preparation could be done online.”

For a cost of $150 per couple, engaged couples can take the six classes online. As part of the classes, the couple is required to follow online links and read Church documents on the sacrament of matrimony and key doctrines of the faith. Each class requires the couple to fill out and discuss a worksheet that the Meerts personally correct.

Christian said that they find they get better results from the online class than the live class.

“In the live setting, couples can be very passive,” said Meert. “In the online class they have to go deeper and answer and discuss the questions. Some couples think and work through a single worksheet for three days.”

“We were both surprised at the variety of topics the class caused us to discuss,” said Sarah and Andy, a couple who went through the online course. “Instead of just focusing on religious topics, we had the opportunity to talk about our values and feelings about kids, family, jobs, and roles in the household.”

‘Growing Market’

To date, the Meerts have taught 1,080 couples, both live and online. They receive approximately three times as many couples online as they do live. They have formal relationships with the Dioceses of Colorado Springs, Buffalo, N.Y., Denver and New Orleans. Individual parishes in New York and California send all of their couples to them for marriage preparation.

The Archdiocese of New York and Dioceses of Bismarck and Fargo, N.D., have ordered the materials and are considering using the program as well. They’ve also taught couples from as far away as Australia, China, Peru and the Philippines. The Meerts currently coordinate the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

Meert said the course appeals to those who can’t attend normal classes because they live in separate states or far from a teaching site, and those who have busy work schedules such as police officers, doctors and students. Christian said that couples are also beginning to take advantage of Natural Family Planning courses online.

CatholicMatch.com, another Internet dating service, plans to ride on the success of programs like the Meerts’. The company recently took over CatechismClass.com and, within two months, plans to begin offering classes through its new site (FourMarks.com).

The site’s co-founder said they receive at least a dozen requests per month from parishes that would like to use their classes for RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) or CCD classes.

“We think this a growing market,” said Brian Barcaro, co-founder of the Pittsburgh-based CatholicMatch. “Directors of religious education and parish priests are having an increasingly difficult time getting people together for personal formation. Less and less, people are turning to books, yet they are already online.”

“We’re not trying to supplant anything that dioceses or parishes are doing,” said Barcaro. “We’re providing a tool for them.”

Not everyone agrees.

“Everyone is plugged in all the time,” said Christopher Check, executive vice president of the Rockford, Ill.-based think tank The Rockford Institute. “G.K. Chesterton said there are no bad things, just bad uses of things.”

Check isn’t entirely convinced of the merit of modern communication technologies. He thinks it’s still a good idea to bring people together physically.

“I am skeptical of the merits of modern communication technology,” said Check. “The promises of these technologies haven’t been sufficiently examined. I am fearful that they are supplanting normal ordinary human relationships.”

“Technology can trivialize relationships,” said Check. “It encourages a kind of quip-think where people think in sound bites and there tends to be less substance to their conversations. An online education, for example, isn’t the same as sitting in a room in the presence of a professor with whom you build a relationship over a period of years.”

Check points to a 1986 Vatican document titled “Guide to the Training of Future Priests Concerning the Instruments of Social Communication,” issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education.

“The document called for an antidote to the human costs of too many electronic visual and auditory stimuli,” explained Check.

“As an antidote to time-wasting, sometimes even alienating indulgence in superficial media programs, the students should be guided to the love and practice of reading, study, silence and meditation,” said the document. “This will serve to remedy the isolation and self-absorption caused by the unidirectional communication of the mass media.”

Pulpit to iPod

Following the lead of many evangelical Christian churches, more and more Catholic parishes are using modern technology to help deliver information to their parishioners. While few Catholic parishes have gone as far as installing electronic donor kiosks in their vestibules for making donations electronically with a credit or debit card, and not many Catholic priests are delivering their sermons by podcast, they are finding ways to meet their parishioners’ needs.

St. Michael’s Church in Cranford, N.J., for example, offers a weekly RCIA podcast for those inquiring into the faith or anyone else who is interested in learning more about the faith. The popular podcast features contemporary and traditional music, reflections on the day’s Scripture readings and apologetics lessons by Catholic apologist John Martignoni, founder of the Bible Christian Society.

The podcast was first launched last Advent as a way to keep the 12 RCIA candidates updated. The podcast’s creator, architect apprentice Christopher Cavaliere, said it came about almost by accident.

“In February, we had a blizzard, and RCIA was canceled,” said Cavaliere. “I had put together notes for the class and figured, Why not create an audio snippet for those who couldn’t be there?”

“We wanted to offer it to RCIA participants, but also to others in the parish who were searching for something like this,” said Father Edgardo Jocson, pastor at St. Michael’s. “Even those who can’t make the sessions have a way to receive them.”

Both Father Jocson and Cavaliere have been surprised by the podcast’s reach.

“It reaches well beyond the confines of our parish,” said Cavaliere, who admitted that it has more listeners outside the parish than within. There are subscribers from England, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore and Sri Lanka. “The majority of our RCIA participants this year are not from our parish. They’re from nearby towns and found out about us from our website.”

Even Catholic institutions of higher education are jumping on the bandwagon. The Catholic Biblical School at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas has recently expanded its four-year ancient Biblical Scripture program to include Internet-based distance education.

“Our decision to make this important program more universally accessible is in keeping with the mandate of the Second Vatican Council that ‘access to sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful,’” said Brian Schmisek, director of the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies. “We hope that by offering this program … both onsite and over the Internet, we will make possible the study of the Bible for those who have otherwise lacked access.”

The Catholic Biblical School began with 70 students in the fall of 2002. Today, more than 400 students studying at 27 sites participate in this four-year program. The Biblical School program, which covers every book of the Bible, provides an in-depth study of the Bible from a Catholic perspective.

Whether it’s singles, engaged couples, Catholics or non-Catholics, technology is helping bring the Good News to more people.

“I’m constantly reading about how single Catholics feel underserved and underrepresented in parishes. They’re often the ones in the back row. They sneak in late and leave early,” said Gail Laguna, who handles corporate communications for Catholic Mingle. “Sites like ours are helping them to meet other single Catholics in a way that they are no longer finding in their local communities.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.