Faith

Why Twitter Needs a Patron Saint

Recent exchange on the social media platform begs the question about faith and social media

A lively exchanged erupted recently on Twitter that is worth considering.

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan found herself at the center of a Twitter thread when one of her followers offered to pray to St. Francis de Sales on her behalf. St. Francis, the follower noted, is the patron saint of journalists.

“The space between that television screen and the person in need who is watching and listening, is holy ground.”

Noonan responded that she had thought that patronage belonged to St. Clare of Assisi (“for light and clarity”), but corrected herself when she learned, upon further investigation, that St. Clare was the patron saint of television.

St. Clare possessed the well-attested ability to transport herself, through her psyche, over the “airwaves” to see events vividly as if she was present, though she remained bed-ridden and confined to a convent. In 1958, with the rise of television and perhaps recognizing the need for intercession, Pope Pius XII designated Clare the medium’s guardian saint.

The Twitter thread erupted after that with photos — St. Clare by a computer monitor; St. Anthony in a school entrance way — and personal stories (“St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around. Something is lost that must be found!”).

One person made mention of a segment on NPR about naming a patron saint of the internet — and Noonan nominated St. Joseph of Cupertino, “an idiot/genius who flew through the air.”

She further noted that “much of [the internet] was invented/developed in and around Cupertino, CA” and that “there are no accidents!” Then Noonan pressed the point: “Who should be the patron saint of Twitter?” There came a number of animated suggestions.

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St. Jude held forth with the strongest affirmations, being the patron saint of lost causes. (St. Rita, patron saint of the same, was also nominated along these lines.) The name of St. Bonaventure was thrown in, as he was the patron saint of truth. (His nomination included the hashtag #TheResistance.) St. Jerome got a nod, as he is the patron saint of the angry, who, it was noted, once said, “It is worse still to be ignorant of your ignorance.” St. Teresa of Avila was heralded by Noonan as one who “could cut you down to 144 [sic] characters!” as was St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors, lawyers, and clowns.

Then there was St. Felicia, patron saint of goodbyes, and St. Simeon, the holy fool, and St. Dymphna, patron saint of sufferers of mental affliction. On it went. The consensus was, in any case, that Twitter needs divine intercession.

Patron sainthood, as it is currently understood, has evolved to become a picture that little resembles its early significance in the centuries of Christian formation.

Early church fathers such as St. Basil (329 or 330 – 379) and St. John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407) emphasized the revolutionary notion that ordinary people who lived “consistently in a spirit of loving self-offering to God” ought to be considered saints (“Penguin Dictionary of the Saints”).

The space between that Twitter feed and the person in need who is reading or trolling, is holy ground.

This kind of faith could likewise be considered a form of martyrdom, which had until then been the mark of those deemed “saints.” This martyrdom, they maintained, bears its witness through “persevering lives.” And, unlike the image created in later hagiographies, saints are not without faults and being canonized is not what makes someone a saint.

Living day-to-day lives “not merely well, but at an heroic level of Christian faithfulness and integrity” is what makes one a saint. Canonization is merely a public recognition of those who have done so, with the full admission that many saints remained unrecognized (thus, not canonized). These are known only “to God and their neighbors.”

One such saint is Fred “Mister” Rogers, the one I deem worthy to be conferred as the patron saint of Twitter. I interviewed and wrote a cover story about him a short time before his death in 2003.

Most people aren’t aware that he was an ordained minister under the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as “an evangelist to work with children and families through the mass media.”

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He told me he saw the invisible force behind media as sacred: “The space between that television screen and the person in need who is watching and listening is holy ground. And what you present can be translated through that space to meet the need of the person who is listening and watching. The Holy Spirit translates our best efforts into what needs to be communicated to that person in need. The longer I live, the more I know that that’s true.”

Exchange all references to “the television screen” to the Twitter feed — and Mister Rogers offered a hopeful vision for how this medium can actually help hurting people: “The space between that Twitter feed and the person in need who is reading or trolling, is holy ground. And what you tweet can be translated through that space to meet the need if the person who is reading.”

St. Clare covers the sacred space of television, and (per Peggy Noonan) St. Cupertino holds forth over the internet. The sacred space between the tweeter and the reader has yet to be claimed and sanctified with holy purpose — and it is time it is. I nominate Mister Rogers, in whose neighborhood every day is a beautiful day and under whose watchful eye this media might yet become holy.

Wendy Murray served as regional correspondent for TIME magazine in Honduras in the early 1990s, and later as associate editor and senior writer at Christianity Today. She is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel.

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