Vatican asked to name Net patron saint

Movement: Two candidates have been suggested, but some balk at the idea.

March 20, 2000|By Judith Gaines | Judith Gaines,Boston Globe

Oasta eaters have their own patron saint. So do tax collectors, beggars, seekers of lost articles, supporters of lost causes, students, people with sore throats or troubled marriages.

St. Giles guides the disabled, St. Expedito aids the procrastinator, St. Raphael will get a friendship back on track. But cyberspace, so far, is saintless.

Now, as more people spend more time surfing the captivating but sometimes soulless ocean of information on the World Wide Web, there's a movement under way urging the Vatican to name a patron saint of the Internet.

"The Internet is a gift of God, an asset to the human condition. Why shouldn't the Catholic Church endorse it in this way?" asked Thomas Groome, professor of theology at Boston College.

But Groome and others acknowledge that the campaign is questioned, given that the Internet offers browsers plenty of pornographic and other unholy sites.

The effort began in Europe and is being pushed through petitions and other communiques to the Vatican. So far, two candidates have been suggested.

The one who apparently has the most support is Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636), a Spanish theologian who spoke several languages and was widely considered the most learned man of his time.

In an age of growing barbarism and contempt for learning, he created the "Etymologiae," a 20-volume encyclopedia of everything from grammar to birds, beasts, medicine, road-making, clothing and furniture, as well as meditations on the divine.

"His works became a storehouse of knowledge freely utilized by innumerable medieval authors," said Internet Observation Services, an Italian group that nominated Isidore.

In other words, he was a one-man Web.

The other candidate is San Pedro Regalado (1390-1456), a Spanish priest known for his ability to appear at more than one place at the same time.

"Is that not precisely what we do on the Internet?" asked Luis Angel Largo, who heads the Asociacion Amigos del Pisuerga, a religious group in Valladolid, Spain. The organization is urging the pope to pick Regalado -- who, as it happened, lived in Valladolid.

There is no official word from the Vatican, where the Pontifical Council for Social Communication and the Congregation for Divine Worship and Services sometimes designate patron saints. But the papacy does not have to give its seal of approval to such a selection.

More often, patron saints -- who already have been canonized -- are picked through popular devotion or custom. They become viewed as a protector of a place, occupation or activity. St. Francis, for instance, was a nature lover who became the patron of ecologists.

In other cases, saints are credited with an ability to aid people with a particular malady, such as St. Giles, a disabled priest said to have special sympathy for those who are similarly afflicted.

St. Clare of Assisi is the patron saint of television because one Christmas, too ill to leave her bed, she allegedly saw and heard a Christmas Mass miles away.

The question of whether the Internet needs a saint is generating hot debate among the plugged-in crowd, Catholics and non-Catholic alike.

At the 1369 Coffeehouse in Cambridge, Mass., where several customers had set up their laptops to work while sipping their java, some thought the Net could benefit from divine oversight.

"I could use a saint to get rid of all my spam mail," quipped Teanna Babcock, 43, a teacher of boxing and martial arts in Cambridge.

Perhaps an Internet saint could help her upload more quickly, or have less down time, Babcock mused. In any case, Isidore sounded like a good choice.

"I just hope he's a secure server," she said.

But others balked at the prospect of an ultimate Web master.

A few tables away, Anna Kazanjian, 35, a graduate student at Bunker Hill Community College, was working on a physics assignment. She thought a patron saint sounded too much like an exclusively Catholic idea, and non-Catholics wouldn't take to it.

"The essence of the Internet is that it's open to anybody, regardless of their religious beliefs," she said.

Others said many Internet users don't feel spiritually bereft. And some wondered if the current nominees might be too old to guide the ever-changing and unruly Web.

With more than 30 billion screen-sized pages of all descriptions available worldwide, the Internet is still the wild, wild West, said Don Orifice, 46, executive director of the North Shore Computer Society.

He wasn't sure Net surfers would want a saint, but, if they do, he thought a better choice might be St. Anthony.

"Isn't he the one you appeal to if you're lost, or trying to find something?" he asked, adding that this is often the plight of Web users.

At Boston University, Mark Girolami, 27, a law student specializing in classical and medieval studies, said an Internet saint should be a more modern soul than Regalado or Isidore.

"Bill Gates is the one who comes to mind," he said.

Saint Bill?

Even Groome thought someone such as Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian nationalist revered for his message of nonviolence, would be more appropriate. Or Dorothy Day, the founder of the "Catholic Worker," known for her deep commitment to peace, justice and the environment.

"If ever there was a time to break open the Catholic imagination, if ever there was a time to canonize a non-Catholic, surely the time is now," he said. "And what better subject than the Internet, which crosses so many lines of class and culture?"

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