Way back in ancient history, before Match.com and Tinder, there was, at least in one part of Los Angeles, something we called “hotline.” The rumor was that the hotline was, in fact, a series of test numbers used by the phone company. The prefixes varied, but the final four numbers were always 1118 or 1119. You would dial the number, and then wait until someone else called the same number. Then you would talk.

My friends and I would spend hours on hotline. If other guys called our number, we would hang up and dial a different number. If girls called, we’d try to strike up a conversation. For a shy adolescent attending an all-male high school, hotline was a godsend.

In fact, it was through hotline that I met my first girlfriend. She lived about 40 miles away — which was practically across the country since I didn’t yet have a driver’s license. After our anonymous Ma Bell encounter, we exchanged phone numbers and talked for weeks by phone before we ever met face-to-face.

Looking back, it was very old-fashioned. There were no video chats, no photos posted, no swipes left or right — nothing but conversation to determine if you liked a person and wanted to keep talking.

Today the choices for making connections seem endless. There are online dating services for everyone. (Have you heard of Catholicmatch.com?) You can read bios (E-Harmony has a 400-question survey) or, if you’re using an app like Tinder, you see little more than a photo before making your decision. Judge a book by its cover? The internet makes that very easy.

Almost 50 million Americans have tried online dating, which is pretty impressive when you consider that there are 54 million single people in the country.

And digital gets results. According to Statisticbrain.com, 17 percent of marriages in the past year were the result of online matches. As always, the trick seems to be how to get these and all marriages to last. 

In a society where severe loneliness is being called a public health crisis, affecting an estimated one in five people, we are desperate to connect. Yet it seems so hard to stay connected. The Church is noticing a significant decline in sacramental marriages, mirroring a decline in marriage across the board. Couples are cohabiting, but not marrying. We want to connect, but either fear or doubt the possibility of permanence.

This may be Act Two of the generation of divorces that preceded it. The national divorce rate peaked in the 1980s. Now both marriages and divorces are down, though this doesn’t mean breakups are down. The rate of divorce for second and third marriages is significantly higher than for first marriages.

It is hard to believe in a “till death do us part” if one’s own parents and aunts and uncles didn’t make it. An estimated 71 percent of people dating online believe in love at first sight, but many find a lifetime with one spouse to be but a wishful dream.

All of this impacts the Church. There is a great deal of debate in certain Church circles about Communion for the divorced and remarried. This debate reflects the great social upheaval in modern relationships. How can the Church best respond when its founder said, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

While that debate continues, however, more energy needs to be put into supporting those who are married, particularly because those over the age of 50 are one of the fastest growing age segments for divorce.

There are all sorts of support for divorcing couples, but what do we do for those who are sticking it out? How do we acknowledge the couple that overcomes infertility or infidelity, miscarriages or mismatched marriages, or simply those who quietly become examples of selfless, generative love? Maybe a few minutes at the end of Mass to renew their vows and receive a round of applause when they hit 25 years or 50. That’s about it.

We need to support those who stay the course with more than applause. And we need to put young couples starting out together with mentoring couples who can guide them past the shoals and pitfalls.

Here’s the secret we need to share: Those wedding vows are for real. There are good times and bad times. There is richer and poorer, sickness and health. But we also need to share that love grows. There is a self-sacrificial aspect to love that has nothing to do with feelings or first sights. It is more like a muscle that needs to be spiritually nurtured and actively exercised. And if nurtured and exercised, that love gets deeper and richer and better over time.

How we meet isn’t the important issue. It is how we stay together.