Internet users seek help from heaven

Ideas: Cyber-Saints

December 28, 2003|By Carol Eisenberg | Carol Eisenberg,NEWSDAY

Beleaguered by spam, some people might feel helpless or overwhelmed. Not the Rev. Peter Paul Brennan, who looks heavenward for deliverance from such earthly irritations.

Brennan, of West Hempstead, N.Y., says he seeks guidance and intercession from St. Isidore of Seville, a sixth century prelate who wrote a 20-volume encyclopedia of civilization - really, Brennan says, the first database of knowledge ever compiled.

Who better, Brennan asks, to be patron saint of the Internet than this pioneering Spanish cataloguer?

The Vatican has yet to designate anyone as patron of the Internet, but Brennan is one of thousands of believers already practicing personal devotions and supporting worldwide lobbying to promote their favorite candidates. Earlier this year, for instance, an Italian Web site drew responses from 70,000 people in 91 countries after announcing an online poll for the designation of Internet patron (www.santiebeati.it).

The winner was the Rev. James Alberione, a 20th century Italian priest who founded several religious communities dedicated to harnessing modern communications, including radio, TV and cinema, for the purpose of evangelization.

Though Rome has not indicated it will act anytime soon, the contest has become heated.

"The important thing is not who is chosen, and certainly not to have a patron-saint horse race," said Monsignor James Moroney, an expert on worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "What is important is that people use the example of holy men and women, and ask for their intercession in their lives."

To some, of course, the notion that an otherworldly guide is needed for help in using this quintessentially modern communications tool seems ... wacky. Believers, however, say the 2,000-year-old Christian tradition of looking to exemplary lives as both guides and intercessors is an essential part of Christian practice.

After all, both television and radio have patrons (the archangel Gabriel and St. Clare, respectively), as do such relatively modern professions as truck drivers (St. Christopher) and public relations workers (St. Bernardino of Siena).

"The Internet has the potential to bring people into communication and communion with each other like no other form of media," said Sister Kathryn Hermes, director of electronic publishing for Pauline Books and Media, the publishing house of the Daughters of St. Paul, which supports the naming of Alberione, its founder. "It does need to have someone who can say, by their life and by their writings, what the goal of this media can and should be."

And even in this highly technological age, millions still look to heaven for help.

"Maybe it's that we run a Catholic bookstore, but you should hear all the requests we get," said Sister Nancy Usselmann, manager of the Pauline Book and Media Center in midtown Manhattan, who also supports Alberione. "We have actors and actresses come in and ask who's the patron saint of actors. Nothing of this world is beyond God's reach."

And who else, believers say, is going to respond to pleas for help at 2 a.m. when a virus is in the software?

Rome may be indifferent, but the quest for a patron goes on.

Brennan, for instance, who is a bishop in an alternative Christian church called the Ecumenical Catholic Diocese, is active in a worldwide online community called the Virtual Order of St. Isidore of Seville, devoted to advocating Isidore's designation, as well as instilling a "chivalric code" for online behavior (www.stisidore.org).

The Daughters of St. Paul, meanwhile, persuaded New York Cardinal Edward Egan to preside at a Mass for Alberione Nov. 30. It drew a standing-room-only crowd to St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Though Egan did not speak directly to the patron saint issue, he referred to the recently beatified priest as "the apostle of media" who organized priests and nuns "to announce the Gospel through the press, through films, even through television as the years went on." The religious order also gives out booklets about Alberione's life in addition to maintaining its own Web site (www.alberione.com).

And there are also advocates for such choices as the archangel Gabriel, the messenger who brought Mary the news that she would bear Christ, and even St. Clare of Assisi, a nun believed to have had visions of the Nativity while she lay ill in bed on Christmas Eve.

From the perspective of Moroney, the expert on worship, the more and livelier the devotions, the better.

"To be honest with you, I pray to a whole variety of saints," Moroney said. "The one thing that's clear to me when I'm using the Internet, which has enormous potential as well as enormous risks, is that it needs patron saints - and maybe more than one.

"So in that sense, one could say, let 1,000 patrons bloom."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing company.

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