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Can Catholic speed dating ministries boost falling marriage vocations?

A couple enjoys drinks at a bar in Venice, Italy, April 26, 2021. As studies show Catholic marriage vocations are way down amid a wider crisis in dating culture, single Catholics are creating other options to meet each other. (OSV News photo/Manuel Silvestri, Reuters)

(OSV News) — Recent studies show that online dating is one of the most popular ways couples meet each other. But some single Catholics are growing disillusioned with the digital world and searching for — or creating — other options.

Czeena Devera, co-founder of Hot and Holy, a Michigan-based Catholic singles’ ministry, told OSV News that she knows many successful couples who met online, but believes online dating sometimes causes people to dismiss each other too readily.

“Once you’re on online dating, you start looking at people as a series of lists. … If you met them outside of the dating app, you probably would have liked them, but, ‘Oh, they don’t have the right job,'” said Devera.

On the other hand, it can be hard for Catholics to get dates in person, too. “There are a lot of young adult events, but you don’t know if the guy you’re talking to is single or not,” Devera told OSV News.

A Broader Cultural Crisis

Catholic marriages declined 69% over the past 50 years, even as the Catholic population itself has increased by nearly 20 million, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Annual Catholic weddings are down 30,000 from the pre-pandemic 2019 figure of 132,000. Among the factors for the Catholic marriage decline is a broader cultural crisis of dating. A 2021 survey by the Institute for Family Studies asked people under 55 who desired marriage why they were not married: 58% said, “It is hard to find the right person to marry.” A 2020 Pew study found that 47% of Americans thought dating had become harder in the prior 10 years, while only 19% thought it had become easier. A 2023 Pew study also found that 30% of U.S. adults — and 53% of those under 30 — had ever used a dating site or app with about 10% of partnered Americans meeting their current partners online. Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project summed up the trends to OSV News. “I think it’s getting harder for Americans to find spouses,” he said. Among the confluence of challenges are a growing college attendance gender gap, online dating habits, and cultural discouragement of people being intentional about using their 20s to find a spouse. “Marriage rates are down markedly since 1970, and we see declining rates of dating as well.”

Devera and some friends were swapping frustrating dating stories in 2021 when they had an idea: what about throwing a speed dating event? They put one together that October, and about 130 people came — well beyond the 50 to 80 they hoped for.

Speed dating, a way to meet many potential dates in one evening, was invented by a rabbi in the 1990s to help single Jewish people find spouses. At a typical speed dating event, participants chat with each attendee of the opposite sex for a set length of time, then privately select which participants they are interested in seeing again. Mutually interested participants are told that they “matched,” and contact information is exchanged.

Besides more speed dating events, Hot and Holy also has hosted mixers and trivia nights for single Catholics. They even run pop-up speed dating events in other parts of the country. “It really started as just a joke. Then it was just an event, and then it grew into, ‘Hey, this could actually be a ministry,'” Devera said.

A volunteer on the Hot and Holy team is developing an app to facilitate speed date matching, which they hope to license for others to use by the end of the year. In addition, Hot and Holy plans to build workshops to help attendees build healthy dating relationships.

“We’re trying to change the culture of dating,” Devera said.

A year after Hot and Holy’s first event, two laywomen launched another Catholic speed dating effort near Phoenix.

“I’d never been to a speed dating event; I had no experience with speed dating, so it must have been the Holy Spirit,” Kimberly McCarthy told OSV News.

McCarthy, a mother of six, and Katy Hansen, a mother of five, had both seen that their adult children were struggling to meet and date fellow Catholics.

“I kept meeting more and more awesome single Catholics, and it just seemed like nobody was connecting. I would sometimes see people in the same room at an event and then still not connect,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy and Hansen put on their first “Arizona Catholic Speed Dating” event in September 2022. One event quickly became five — some speed dating and some less structured mixers — with more events planned for 2023.

McCarthy and Hansen get about 40 attendees at their events, which are held in the party room of a local Irish pub.

“We have people coming from different parishes and different (Catholic) rites. … We want people to meet from different walks of life,” Hansen told OSV News.

Six months after their first event, Hansen and McCarthy already know of a few relationships that have resulted from their events. “There’s been lots of dates going on, and everybody’s just at a different point,” Hansen said.

“But … if anybody ever gets married from this, they have to invite us to the wedding,” joked Hansen.

Speed dating already has a proven track record for Catholics in other locations. Anna Basquez of Denver founded Denver Catholic Speed Dating in 2011 and Faith Match!, a Catholic matchmaking service.

Basquez told OSV News she has lost count of how many couples have met and married through her efforts, but estimates that the number is around 40 to 50. “Sometimes … at Oktoberfests or church bazaars, I get to meet their children, so that’s pretty fun,” Basquez said.

Like Devera’s event, Basquez’s first event drew more people than she expected. “All of a sudden, 50 or 60 people showed up, and we broke the fire code of the restaurant!” she said.

While the events themselves have been successful, Basquez also notices a ripple effect: attendees who don’t meet their mates at her events often meet someone soon after — perhaps because speed dating helped them gain confidence or practice social skills that led to better dates.

“Numerous (couples) credited my events toward getting to where they are and finding their future spouse in the faith,” Basquez said.

Devera told OSV News that Hot and Holy has seen a few couples form too. But she said that even a date that doesn’t lead to a relationship is a good thing.

“I still consider that a success story, because people are going out of their way to date.,” Devera said. “If you’re looking for your future spouse, you need to actually go on dates! Guys need to ask women out, and women need to say yes.”

And if other lay Catholics are considering starting a dating ministry in their area, “just do it,” Devera said.

“There’s such a need. All you have to do is ask a few good friends, and it’ll happen,” she said.

McCarthy and Hansen shared that they feel energized by their work and the gratitude attendees express.

“They’re so thankful that someone in the church cares about the young adults. Sometimes it’s a lost group,” Hansen said. “God rewards us.”

Rachel Hoover writes for OSV News from Tennessee.

See related coverage by OSV News:
Dating Culture Crisis Fuels Catholic Marriage Vocation Collapse

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