To date, 25 couples have married after meeting through his Web site Single Catholics Online. He recently moved his family from Princeton, N.J., to Ann Arbor, Mich., to become president of the anticipated Catholic book recommendation service TiberRiver.org. Buono recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Drake: Tell me about your upbringing. Have you always been a Catholic?
Buono: I grew up in Philadelphia as a cradle Catholic. My upbringing was typical of the 1970s. It was very culturally oriented. We went to Church on Sunday, but our faith was not practiced in the home. I grew up in a single-parent household and so my mother worked a lot. We went to CCD, but the faith was never impressed upon me. Confirmation was the last time I went to confession or Mass, if I could help it.
After I got into college I started having pangs for Jesus again, but I never thought of coming back to the Catholic faith. During my search I started asking a lot of questions that no one was able to answer and so I bounced from Protestant denomination to denomination. My older brother Alex encouraged me to do some reading. I trusted him because he had gone from being an anti-Catholic to a Catholic. So, I started reading about the papacy and, at age 21, fell back into the faith. I went from being an anti-Catholic to someone who takes the faith very seriously.
How did you get where you are at today? What is your professional background?
I didn't get married until I was 27. When Bridget and I were first married it was hard going. I jumped from job to job. While at a mutual friends' daughter's first Communion, I met the president of Scepter Publishers. I boldly asked him if he was looking for help, and a month later, at age 30, I was working for Scepter in Princeton, New Jersey.
Up until that point I had been doing computer and office management work. At Scepter I started embracing computers and the Internet. There were only two of us there, so I did everything … administration, computers, packing books. It gave me a big taste of the Catholic world, and it was very encouraging. Working there gave me hope and got me excited about what I was doing. I became general manager.
How did Single Catholics Online get started?
With Scepter, I would travel all over to various conferences. I would continually meet single devoted Catholics and it was always the same story. They would say, “It's so hard to meet someone else who takes their faith seriously.” Finally, I just got sick of it.
I had started something similar, using the mail system in Philadelphia. People could correspond anonymously by mail through our service and request profiles by mail. Then they would send the letters to the people they wanted to send them to, through me. I had a young family then and it grew too large for me. After one year, I handed [the service] over to one of the members.
Three years later, Shannon Brown, Jerry Yandoli and I created a similar service using the Internet, with the same logo. I took out a second mortgage on our house so we could get the money to develop Single Catholics Online and it was incorporated as a for-profit corporation in March of 1998. The site was up and running by May. We figured that if it grows, we will make money servicing the Church and helping us provide for our families.
Does Single Catholics Online stem from yourown experiences as a single person?
Absolutely. It is a subject very close to my heartbecause I remember what it was like to be single. It was very hard to meet people dedicated and attracted to sharing their faith. I never liked being single because I was always anxious to get into my vocation. However, it is not that easy. We live in a culture where you meet many Catholics who are Catholic in name only. I have come across couple after couple in mixed marriages that have broken apart. In many relationships there is an imbalance between one person who practices their faith and another who does not. The Holy Father is calling us to raise up strong Catholic families so that we can witness to others.
What is the goal of Single Catholics Online?
Single Catholics Online is for those with a vocation to marriage interested in building friendship towards that goal. That is why I prefer SCOL to be called a “marriage” service rather than a “dating” service. When people today hear the term “dating,” they realize that it is constrained to people getting together, going out and then going their own way. There is no commitment to looking at the other person with long-term vision. They do not look at the person as a possible person that they could court and eventually marry.
We are not a pen pal service or simply a place to find friendships. We have created a “neighborhood” full of people who are discerning the vocation tomarriage and are serious about trying to find their future spouse. Our primary goal is to get people together who are answering God's call to be married and get on with building up society through strong family life, people who are faithful to the Church's mission and the Holy Father.
The fundamental tragedy today is that so many people do not want to make or keep commitments. They do not take the permanence of marriage seriously. This is the culture we are trying to deal with.
Single Catholics Online is for people who want to, are ready, or are capable of making a commitment.
We try to impress that this is for the serious-minded.
What makes your service unique?
First, members have to pay $59.95 up front. No other service does that. Other services offer a free trial period, which tends to attract the curious who ruin it for the serious. Being on the Internet is already intimidating. People cannot treat this kind of service like a “supermarket” experience. God can use a service like SCOL, but in his time. We are not a forum for people who want to be pen pals. Our members are putting their trust in God, and as a service we need to have other serious people for them to meet.
We are overt about our commitment to the magisterium of the Church. Our company is dedicated to the Holy Father because he has been a great rejuvenator of what relationships and family are to be. Our literature makes it very clear that we are faithful to the Church. We attract members who are as well.
Our profile questionnaire is unique in its length and the questions it asks. Not only does it ask common personal things such as hobbies, but it also addresses many Catholic questions. It asks members their favorite saint and Scripture passages, and it asks for essay answers to questions regarding members' views on the authority of the Pope, contraception and the sacraments. The questionnaire serves to offer comfort to our members and exposes those members who may not take their faith seriously.
People want to talk about these things. Our system allows people to present what is in their hearts and minds. Each member is anonymous throughout the search process. They can view and read a profile before they make a contact. When they do make contact they already have a lot of information about each other. This serves to remove the common barriers in meeting others. It removes the chitchat about the weather and offers couples a starting point. A member may say, “I see you like this. I like that too.”
Single Catholics Online also offers visitors the opportunity to e-mail a priest. How do couples use that service?
“Ask Father” is a feature which is available to any visitor to our Web site. It provides access to Catholic priests for anyone who has questions that only a priest should answer. We get people who have moral dilemmas asking questions about divorce, annulments and their faith. This feature has become so popular that after the first six months we added a second priest. It is almost time to add a third.
How large is Single Catholics Online?
Our membership grows daily, and it's for people of all ages. We have people anywhere between the ages of 18 and 70. We currently have 1,617 members. Most members heard about us by some form of word-of-mouth (a friend, a parent, a successful couple who met on the site, etc.). We have members in all 50 states and Canada. We also have members from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Colombia, Kenya, Mexico, Germany, Sweden, Nigeria, Trinidad, South Africa and Venezuela. The only two members from England we had, both met one another on our site. We offer first-year memberships free to those outside the U.S. and Canada because there are so few members online from those countries.
What sort of interesting stories have come out of the work of SCOL so far?
So many of the stories make me smile, because there are so many interesting things that go one between the time a couple first meets online and the time they meet in person.
Our first marriage is one of our most interesting stories. We had a young man, John, from Wyoming and a young woman, Janice, from Kentucky. Neither of them had computers. Both of their parents knew their children would never sign up on their own, so both sets of parents went online and set up accounts for their children, without their children knowing it. In both cases after doing a search, the parents, acting as their children, ended up finding each other. They didn't tell their children this until later.
Eventually John and Janice borrowed their parents' computers and went online. As it turned out they each found the exact person the parents had found online earlier. Nine months later they were married, Janice moved to Wyoming, and they just had their first child in February of this year.
They have stories of traveling long hours by train and bus through ice storms, and of the monetary sacrifices of giant phone bills. Yet, when asked what they would say to other skeptical people, they say that it was completely worth it. “What else can you do when you meet the person of your dreams? Love makes you do crazy things,” they say.
Most of our successes come from couples in different states. … Singles exhaust their network of contacts among family, friends and co-workers in the local area and need to be open to stepping outside their state in many cases if they want to meet that “right person.”
What do you have planned next?
Up until September, SCOL was earning enough to pay our bills each month. In September, I met with Tom Monaghan, founder of Dominos Pizza and wonderful Catholic, to pitch a new idea I had for an Internet company. While looking through my portfolio he saw Single Catholics Online. He had never heard of it, but when he saw it he just fell in love with it, saying, “I have been looking for a way to bring single Catholics together for a long time.”
He said he wanted to purchase the company. At first, I was hesitant, because SCOLis my baby in so many ways. Then I realized that he could put a lot of financial backing into it which can benefit not only the members, but also the Church a lot faster than I would have been able to do.
I continue to run Single Catholics, but Mr. Monaghan owns the company and is supporting its growth. Consequently, I'm now living in Ann Arbor, not Princeton. We are in the process of creating a new marketing plan, and plan to do more promotion. Our goal is to hit 10,000 members or more within two years.
In addition, we are set to launch TiberRiver.org on March 25. TiberRiver.org will evaluate, recommend and sell Catholic books on the Internet. It will be the most trustworthy place to find Catholic books in print in the world that are faithful to the magisterium of the Church. TiberRiver.org will evaluate each book's authenticity and will recommend only those that are in union with the Church. While there are many great Catholic books, we will be able to recommend appropriate books based upon learning about each visitor first, treating them as a person, and then assisting them to find the best books for their needs.
Tim Drake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.