Will there be a patron saint for the Internet?
Recent news reports say it could happen, and that the Roman Catholic Church is searching for an appropriate personage to receive the prayers of the world's Web surfers. The reputed front-runner: Isidore of Seville, a sixth-century monk, scholar and author who tried to compile the sum of all human knowledge in his most famous work, "Etymologiae." The Catholic Encyclopedia calls him "undoubtedly the most learned man of his Age," who "exercised a far-reaching and immeasurable influence on the educational life of the Middle Ages."
The only problem is that the Vatican says it isn't happening. Though versions of the story have shown up in Newsweek, on National Public Radio and in a flurry of newspapers worldwide, a sternly worded Catholic News Service report from Vatican City says "no formal request has been made to the Vatican for such a designation" of a saint.
"Officials at the Vatican press office, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which approves requests for the designation of patron saints, said on June 28 they did not know where the story of Saint Isidore as Internet patron began," the brief report stated.
If it isn't happening, though, maybe it should. After all, the Catholic church has long named patron saints to help believers through the trials of daily life. There are patron saints for secretaries, astronauts, comedians and scientists. Why not Web surfers?
And if so, why not Isidore? Lots of folks would say the Internet is becoming the repository for all human knowledge, and a saint known for braininess sounds like a pretty good symbol.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Isidore notes drily that "transcribing short passages from various authors, he often adapted his sources in various ways by lightly modifying texts and by coloring them with his own personal ideas. Hence, Isidore cannot be considered a first-class scholar nor an objective historian." That makes him an even better representative of what I generally find online.
But before we go any further, let's ask the uncomfortable question: What's a guy named Schwartz doing giving advice to the Catholic church? Well, let me try delicately to explain. I've always been fascinated by the lives of the saints -- an odd interest for a Jewish guy, I know, but I came by it honestly. Years ago, I studied Gothic art and religious iconography during a glorious college semester in Siena, Italy. The stories of the saints, told with animation and love by teachers and priests and underscored by the magnificent artworks all around me, have stayed with me ever since.
The wonderful 1993 book "Saints Preserve Us! Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You'll Ever Need," by Sean Kelly and Rosemary Rogers, is one of the very sweetest presents that my wife, Jeanne, ever gave me. (She was raised Catholic, and finds my saintly interests somewhere in between eccentrically cute and inoffensively nutty.)
So here is a task -- the search for a patron saint of the Internet -- that joins two of my greatest interests. And I've been thinking about it, and wondering if one saint can really do the job, given the depth and breadth of the Net. Yes, the Internet is in many ways like a library. But it's so much more! It's also the world's biggest mall. And, let's face it, a corner bar and a video game and a whole lot more.
So I love Isidore, but I wonder if other saints might have a role here as well.
I've always been partial to Saint Catherine of Siena, who is so beloved by Italians that they took her remains apart after death. I've visited her head in Siena and what I was told was the rest of her body in Rome, though I've since read that tracking down all of her pieces could send you on quite a tour of Italy. I can't imagine a better representative of the disembodied, virtual world of the Internet.
And while we're visiting my old stomping grounds, how about Saint Bernadino of Siena, who attempted to "brand" his religion, creating a placard that has been compared to a corporate logo for advertising and public relations? What better patron saint for e-commerce?
Let's not forget Joseph of Cupertino, the 17th-century "Flying Friar" who, we're told, was able to levitate. He already has been named patron saint of astronauts and pilots. Shouldn't he be named patron saint of those gravity-defying Internet stocks? And what about Gertrude of Nivelles, who drove away mice? And for people seeking government permission to send encryption software all over the world, look to Saint Jude, known as the patron saint of hopeless cases.
I think anybody who uses a computer and has had to deal with tech support, crashing browsers and dropped Internet connections can identify with Saint Sebastian, who has been depicted by so many artists in the moments after his attempted execution by bow-and-arrow firing squad.
Jeanne, who is pretty troubled by the seedy side of the Web, gamely suggested Saint Thomas Aquinas. You might remember that he turned away from a world of sin as a young man; in some accounts, his loins were girded with a glowing girdle throughout his life.
And to address the fears of Net critics such as newspaper columnist Ann Landers, who frequently blames the Internet for breaking up marriages and isolating people, we really ought to consider Saint Rita, a 14th-century woman who became a nun after the death of her brutal gangster husband, and who is now considered to be the patron saint of desperate cases, loneliness and unhappy marriage.
The more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that just about anything would qualify for this designation. I guess that says something about how the Internet today represents just about every facet of human existence.
Schwartz's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org