The Archangel Gabriel is one of Christianity's great communicators -- it was he who brought word to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus, the Bible says. So it was only natural that when a search began for a patron saint for the Internet, Gabriel's name arose.
According to a poll being conducted by a Roman Catholic organization in northern Italy, he is now in sixth place behind a 20th century martyr, an educator and a publisher born in the 19th century, an 18th century evangelizer and a 13th century nun who saw visions projected on a wall.
The web site, www.santiebeati.it, is soliciting votes with the aim of having an Internet patron saint named by Easter. "We had lots of requests for a patron, so we decided the Internet was the best tool for finding one," said Roberto Diani, an Internet adviser for Italy's Conference of Bishops. The official choice will be made by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Cult and Discipline of Sacrament.
For all the new-fangled methodology, the organizers are following an ancient tradition. For hundreds of years, Christians in villages, towns and cities got together and proclaimed a saintly hero and protector. Later, popes set the rules for sainthood, but nominations still came from the field. Now, in the name of professions and causes never imagined a millennium ago, Catholics are still lining up patron saints.
Recently, motorcyclists got their own patron saint, endorsed by the Vatican -- St. Columbanus, a medieval Irish monk who walked through Europe setting up monasteries. He ended up in Bobbio, Italy, and cyclists there lobbied for him as protector.
Pope John Paul II has named patron saints to promote religious instruction among key professions. In October 2000, he declared St. Thomas More the patron saint of politicians. More was a friend of King Henry VIII, but opposed the monarch's divorce, which resulted in the creation of the Church of England and his self-appointment as its head, precipitating England's break with Rome. In John Paul's view, More sets an example for politicians to be true to religious convictions in setting policy. Recently, he cited More when asking Catholic politicians to oppose abortion.
The patron saint hunt is a subset of a boom in saint recognition under John Paul II's reign. These days, saints aren't so much marching as flooding in. During the past quarter century, John Paul has presided over 465 canonizations, the formal declarations that recognize full-fledged saints, and 1,297 beatifications, the designation of "blesseds" who stand on a rung just below sainthood. That compares with 447 canonizations and 1,310 beatifications during the preceding 400 years.
In one day, John Paul beatified 233 nuns, priests and lay people killed by Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. "This is a popular tradition in full bloom, to say the least," said Severio Gaeta, an expert on sainthood at the Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana.
There will be no slowdown this year. The pope is scheduled to set about 30 people on the road to sainthood. The most widely known, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, will be beatified in October. She spent her life tending to the dying in India. Her mission strikes a particular chord for this ecumenical pope: she hailed from Albania, a mostly Muslim country, and ministered in a country overwhelmingly Hindu.
He also plans to beatify an Italian priest, Marco d'Aviano, who rallied Christian forces to defend Vienna during a 17th century siege by invading Turks. Europeans consider the defense of Vienna a landmark in history: It reversed the Muslim advance into Europe. Some Italian commentators have warned that d'Aviano's elevation might offend Muslims at a time when "war of civilizations" is invoked by some to explain the battle against Islamic-based terrorism.
This year, the pontiff will beatify a 19th century missionary who worked in China and a bishop who labored in Sudan. These moves come when the pope has been trying to restore Rome's control over the Catholic Church in China, where the Communist Party usurped the papal prerogatives and created its own Patriotic Church. Sudan has suffered years of a Muslim-Christian civil war.
Vatican officials reject notions that politics plays a role in saint selection. "There's speculation, but the list is so varied, who can really say so?" said Msgr. Robert Sarno, who works in the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, the Vatican office in charge of vetting candidates for sainthood.
The pope evidently regards the making of saints as a teaching aid. During the millennium celebrations in 2000, he praised saints as "a message that convinces without the need for words."
Sometimes, the message is not clear to everyone. Last year, John Paul beatified a predecessor, Pope Pius IX, best known in Italy for repression of supporters of constitutional rule in central Italy and for endorsing the removal of a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, from his family because he had been secretly baptized. The pope alluded to Pius's transgressions, saying, "The Church does not celebrate particular historical choices he made, but rather singles him out for imitation and veneration for his virtues." The Vatican credits Pius with the miraculous cure of a lame nun.
Early Christians reserved sainthood for martyrs. Christianity was outlawed during more than three centuries of Roman rule. It had spread from the Holy Land over what, at the time, was the equivalent of the Internet: Roman roads. Christians were frequently executed for practicing their faith.
Such bloody qualification for sainthood faded under Emperor Constantine, who declared Christianity the empire's official religion. In the 4th Century, the standard for sainthood shifted to holiness. "Virtue was an heroic act," said Sarno. "Saints were people to be imitated, to find a way to live the message of Christ."
Thirty years ago, the pantheon of saints endured a housecleaning. Saints whose worth seemed based on legend rather than historical fact were eliminated. A venerable Italian favorite, St. Philomena, was erased from the official calendar of saints days because her following was based on a tombstone inscription attesting to her virtue. It turns out that many Roman-era women's tombs bore such praise.
St. Christopher, the traditional patron of travelers, met a similar fate. The tale that he carried the child Jesus across a river was deemed apocryphal. Taxi drivers throughout the Catholic world suddenly found they were putting their safety in the hands of someone the church didn't recognize.
Among the personages set for beatification this year is San Giacomo Alberione, founder of a major Catholic publishing house. He also leads the Internet patron race with 29 percent of the vote.
The others in the top six are Gabriel, St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesian order and a promoter of youth education; Sant'Alfonso Maria de Liguori, a bishop and prolific writer; and Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest and missionary who favored use of technical advances to spread the Gospel. He died of hunger in Auschwitz after offering his life in exchange for a condemned fellow prisoner. Finally, there's St. Clare of Assisi, who saw visions on the wall; she's the patron saint of television.
Individual groups can put in for patrons. Whether or not Gabriel climbs in the Santiebeati poll, he might be pleased to know that he was named recently by the Vatican as patron saint of telecommunications officers in the armies of Colombia and El Salvador.