Five years ago, when the Family Ministries Office at the Archdiocese of Chicago began developing its online marriage preparation program, one of the biggest hurdles was convincing priests and deacons that people could actually learn something from an online course. That’s not so much of an issue anymore, said Kim Hagerty, associate director of Marriage and Family Ministries. The course, which uses a series of video presentations, has been used by more than 16,000 couples from all 50 states and 52 countries. English and Spanish versions are available, as is American Sign Language interpretation and complete captioning. The 12 core sections cover topics from ceremony planning to sexuality to finances, and seven optional sections for people in special circumstances address couples starting second marriages, interfaith and interchurch marriages and those where one or both members are in the military. “That way, couples can personalize it,” Hagerty said. “This really is the next step.” A separate, complete Billings Method natural family planning online course also is available; couples can register for both together at a discounted price. Frank Hannigan, director of Marriage and Family Ministries, said the impetus for online marriage prep came when Father Thomas Cima asked him what the office could do for a couple planning to get married in his parish in which the groom was deployed in the Middle East. “I knew I could get them into a Pre-Cana session as soon as he got home,” Hannigan said. “But I thought there must be other people in the same situation.” Hannigan looked around and found an online program offered by the Marriage Group from Port Huron, Michigan, but he thought his office could improve it. He and Hagerty met with people from the Marriage Group, and formed Marriage Ministries, the partnership that produces and distributes the online program. “It’s turned out to be the world’s largest and fastest growing program,” Hannigan said. After doing the program for a few years, Hannigan said, he’s learned that it’s valuable for people in many situations besides military deployment. It’s good for couples who are separated for any reason, of course, but also people who work weekends or who have unpredictable hours and can’t attend a gathered session. It’s good for people who have a hard time sitting still for hours at a time, or who don’t want to discuss personal issues with their future spouse in a room full of other people. While the program takes about eight hours start-to-finish, Hagerty said most couples who do it online take between two and three weeks to complete it. “That gives them time to think about the questions and have those discussions,” Hagerty said. Some priests and deacons like it because they can preview the materials and know what is being presented, Hannigan said. Some couples like that the video segments feature 18 different couples, so they are not listening to the same people for hours. In addition to the video series, which includes discussion questions and tests, online marriage preparation includes the Catholic Couple Checkup premarital inventory and 14 months of follow-up. In addition, the video sessions are available online for a year, so couples can go back and revisit them if they want to, Hagerty said. The program costs $195, the same as an in-person Pre-Cana class in the Archdiocese of Chicago. That’s more than some dioceses charge for their own programs and less than others, Hannigan said. Some parishes and dioceses refer couples; other couples find it by doing their own online searches. The materials carry the imprimatur of the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Hagerty said making marriage prep accessible can help keep couples in the church. “We’re losing engaged couples we don’t even know about,” she said. “I had one woman say in an evaluation that we were their last chance at getting married in the church.” Hannigan said it makes sense for the Archdiocese of Chicago to be in the forefront of a new way to do marriage prep, given that the archdiocese pioneered the whole idea of offering Pre-Cana 70 years ago. But he said the church has to do what it can to keep up with the people it serves. “We think we are doing this great thing being online,” Hannigan said. “But the couples aren’t impressed. They’re asking where we’ve been.” For more information, visit www.familyministries.org.