JOHN KLEIN sold software for a living until one day in 1996 when he went online and suddenly found himself on the road to the seminary. One year later he had left his high-powered job, sold his townhouse in the Chicago suburbs and given away most of his possessions and was living in a dormitory room studying theology. Five years after that, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest.
All because of the Internet? Well, not quite.
"The Internet did not generate the vocation; it was just a resource," he said. "At that point, one of my questions was: ''Am I too old? Is it even possible?' "
Father Klein, now 40 and the associate pastor of Visitation Catholic Church in Elmhurst, Ill., had wondered for several years whether he had a calling, but he had many questions and no obvious way to get them answered. Or so he thought until he typed the word "vocations" into a search engine and it yielded a single site, www.vocations.com.
In addition to allaying his concerns that he might be too old to get started, the site offered a self-assessment test and links and information about various paths to the priesthood. To his relief, he was able to find answers at that initial stage without personal contact.
Seemingly a clearinghouse for Roman Catholic vocations, the site was in fact a pioneering effort by one priest, the Rev. John Regan, vocation director of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. "For whatever reason, people who are considering a religious vocation want to keep it quiet," Father Regan said. "They don't want to tell their parents, they don't want to tell a lot of their friends." It is not, it seems, like declaring you want to be a doctor or an accountant, he said.
Sister Kathy Bryant, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which has a prominent Internet presence, echoed his observation. "It's a very safe forum for them to ask some honest questions without feeling embarrassed or making a big appointment and formalizing it or giving away who they are," she said. In a typical week, she receives 12 to 15 inquiries generated by the Los Angeles site (www.la-archdiocese .org), some of which, she said, are likely to begin: "Can you be a priest or a sister if you've been married, or if you have had a sexual relationship, or if you're over 30?" (The answer to all three questions is a conditional yes.)
Harnessing the Internet is one strategy church officials are trying to reverse the sharp decline in the number of Catholics committing themselves to lives as priests or nuns over the last four decades. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit organization that analyzes trends in the Catholic Church, there are only 3,414 graduate-level seminarians in the United States, down from 8,325 in 1965; there are 29,285 diocesan priests, down from 35,925 four decades ago. Nuns have seen their numbers drop to 73,316 this year from 179,954 in 1965.
Meanwhile, the Catholic population has grown from 45 million to 63.4 million.
Where Father Regan's use of the Web was considered novel at the beginning, it is now widespread. Type "vocations" into the Google search field today and the result is more than 400,000 entries, including Catholic and non-Catholic sites. (Father Regan's site pops up first, apparently by virtue of having moved early to secure the vocations.com domain - as strategic a coup as Crest's claim on toothpaste.com.)
Father Regan, 40, who has a bachelor's degree in mathematics and computer science from Notre Dame, says the site is intended for anyone exploring the Catholic ministry, not just those in the Joliet diocese - and indeed, it has only a handful of offerings specific to the diocese and an abundance of general information. Father Regan estimates that 85 percent of all Catholic dioceses in the United States have some kind of site promoting vocations. Costing about $1,000 a year to run, a site can be an inexpensive recruiting tool and an easy one to maintain. On a recent trip to Bolivia, Father Regan updated his site from an Internet cafe.
But by the same token, the site is only an initial point of contact. "You also have to have the way to have a personal relationship with these people," Father Regan said. "You know, you could have the finest Web site, but if there isn't something that draws them into the relationship, then it's for naught."
E-mail is often the next step, and Sister Bryant sometimes uses such contacts to be frank about the demands and scrutiny that candidates will face in pursuing a calling. "It's not vocation by default," she said. The stakes of religious life - vows of celibacy and obedience at a minimum and often also a vow of poverty - make the process a delicate and extended interaction.
The prospect of hardship did not dissuade Veronica Fajardo, 28, a bilingual special-education teacher in Los Angeles, from pursuing what she sensed was her calling. "No matter how hard I tried, it would just not go away," she said. She visited many Web sites, but it was the site of the Sisters of the Holy Cross (www.cscsisters.org), filled with photographs and information about their work around the world, that caught her attention three years ago.
Struck by the willingness of the nuns to "leave their comfort zone" and venture abroad, Ms. Fajardo concluded, "There is something special about them if they do this." She was also moved by the site's emphasis on the order's work for social justice. "I got to see their values, pictures of sisters in action, their mission," she said.
Ultimately, Ms. Fajardo contacted the community by e-mail and arranged a visit. She now lives with nuns of the Holy Cross order at St. Agnes Convent in Los Angeles, taking part in a two-year program leading to formal entrance into the congregation.
As for Father Klein, his initial contact through the Web site led to e-mail exchanges, eventually a meeting with Father Regan and finally the seminary. He was ordained in the Joliet diocese in 2002, and he says he loves being a priest despite the six-day work week and the 12- to 14-hour days. Although he no longer needs his computer to help him figure out what to do with his life, he did hold on to it: it's great for preparing homilies.