WELLINGTON, New Zealand — If Clare Omvig has her way, St. Raphael is about to get even busier.
One of seven archangels, St. Raphael is best known for his role in wedding the Bible’s Tobiah with hard-luck Sarah (seven of her previous bridegrooms had died). Omvig is counting on similar intercession today, tabbing the “Angel of Love” as patron of her new Internet dating site, New Zealand Catholic Matchmaker.
Helping Tobiah and Sarah, though, might have been an easier task than connecting today’s Catholic singles living amid what Omvig calls a “lost generation.”
“Most of the people I went to Catholic primary school with no longer go to church,” Omvig wrote from New Zealand via an Internet chat room. “It is difficult for Catholic singles who still identify strongly with the Church to find other like-minded people around their own localities.”
Begun in late August, the site (catholicmatchmaker.co.nz) launches fully on Sept. 29 — Feast of the Archangels.
It joins a bevy of like-minded ventures. “There’s hundreds trying to capitalize on this,” said Anthony Buono, founder of Ave Maria Singles (avemariasingles.com). “It’s a huge business.” The unscrupulous, he adds, “can make a fortune on people’s loneliness and people’s desperation.”
The most familiar online dating services today are secular ones like Match.com and eHarmony. But a niche of faith-based sites also have emerged. “All the religions are covered,” Buono said, including Catholicism.
And some within the Church are giving such sites their personal imprimatur. Omvig advanced with the blessing and promotion of Archbishop John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, “without which we would have canned the whole project,” she said.
Ave Maria Singles, meanwhile, touts Buono’s hour-long EWTN interview with Father Benedict Groeschel, who had a family member meet and marry through the site. CatholicMatch.com’s endorsement page leads with the notable Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life.
Connected … Not
Like the secular sites, said Omvig and Buono, faith-based versions are helping overcome an ironic problem — disconnectedness in an increasingly connected world. What can differ with Catholic sites, though, is finding soul mates concerned about … souls.
“The No. 1 goal of the site is to build Catholic relationships, engagements, marriages and families for tomorrow’s Church,” said Omvig, who met her husband, Glen, through a dating site eight years and three children ago. “The second aim is to bring people who identify as Catholic together and form a community of people who relate because of that one common thing.
“The third aim is to give people who have not been in a church for a long while the opportunity to look at their Catholicism again — and perhaps link up with groups in our Church that may help them work through why they left and why they might like to come back.”
Buono said the No. 1 goal of Ave Maria Singles is “to follow in line with John Paul II’s call to bring Christ back into society” through marriage, family and solid Catholic teaching.
Such evangelism generates content not offered on eHarmony. Catholic dating sites have regular features found elsewhere — instant messaging, online chatting, message boards, blogs, “success stories,” profile searches, etc. But then comes faith.
New Zealand Catholic Matchmaker, for instance, offers a chaplain to answer theological or spiritual questions. The Omvigs also are working toward making mentor couples available for advice and prayer.
CatholicMatch provides links to a daily Catechism, faith-based polls and a weekly Catholic trivia contest. Ave Maria Singles links to a second Buono site (roadtocana.com) with resources for helping an individual become “marriage material.” CatholicSingles has an advice column from Sister Paula Vandegaer, executive director of the pro-life group International Life Services. CatholicMingle offers inspirational spiritual cards and a Bible verse search.
Membership itself also varies, of course. Ave Maria’s profile-building questions weed out non-Catholics or those unfaithful to Church teaching.
“We’re probably the only ones out there who want to make sure most people don’t join the site,” said Buono. “There are 60 million Catholics and it’s only about 10% at best that are truly in line with all the teaching of the [Church] and want to follow it.
“The big one for our members is the contraception question. That seems to be a benchmark. It might be a stupid business model. It certainly works in keeping the membership small, but it’s very robust. It’s very solid, full of people who believe.”
Using a Catholic dating service can help red-flag potential religious conflicts.
“I think our Catholic Church has been weakened in my generation, especially when people choose to marry outside the Church,” said Omvig. “They drift away because their spouse/partner does not believe what they do, and I think it is harder, too, to not share that most important commonality — their faith and religion. It puts stress on couples.”
The sites are relatively inexpensive. New Zealand Catholic Matchmaker is free until Sept. 29, then NZ$14.97 per month. CatholicMatch services start at $12.49 per month. Ave Maria Singles charges a one-time fee of $159 but nothing thereafter. CatholicSingles and CatholicMingle offer similar rates.
There are critics of the sites. Buono hears that the sites should be free, that they’re “meat markets” or that members feel helpless sifting through so many profiles.
But there are successes, too, especially as the stigma of appearing desperate by using such sites abates.
Omvig’s start-up already had 76 members by late August. Ave Maria Singles boasts nearly 12,000 members, about 5,000 of whom are active. Of that, it points to 1,400 married or engaged couples. CatholicMatch calls itself the largest service. Statistics on its site say that “hundreds” have met through their service.
Devin and Catherine Rose of Austin, Texas, met initially on CatholicMatch.com, reunited on Ave Maria Singles and were married Oct. 7, 2006 (Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary), less than a year after meeting. Devin had been using the various Catholic sites for nearly five years. Catherine had been with them for just two months. The couple followed Buono’s advice of accelerating the relationship from e-mail to phone conversations to meeting in person.
“There are real difficulties of getting to know someone online first,” Devin said. “It’s amazing how much meeting in person tells you so much about whether you’re attracted to another person. Just reading about them, you can’t really know whether you’re going to be attracted to them in the totality of their person.”
Buono admitted much the same.
“Online dating, as I always say, is very unnatural,” he said. “It’s just not a natural way to meet people. Only in person is when it’s natural. Online will always just be whatever people choose to write about. But in person, all the levels of the mask come off. Use the site as a networking tool to get in person, and when you’re in person, that’s when you can start to let go of your heart, when it makes sense.”
And don’t forget a prayer to St. Raphael.
Anthony Flott is based in