Why Gen Z Catholics Want a Patron Saint of the Internet

Cardinal Agostino Vallini celebrates Mass for the beatification process of Venerable Carlo Acutis, at the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. Photo by IPA/Sipa USA

“No visions, no tilma, no stigmata. Just a dude and his computer and his love of God. That stuff’s cool,” was how one 24-year-old woman in Texas summarized her appreciation for one of the communion of saint’s newest candidates.

Earlier this month, Vatican officials elevated the cause for Carlo Acutis’ sainthood from the status of “Venerable” to a “Blessed.” Acutis’ story is fascinating—in part because his life was, in so many ways, rather ordinary. He was a 15-year-old boy from Italy, by way of London. While it is difficult to wade through the hagiography, most accounts report that he had a long-time devotion to Eucharistic miracles that he turned into an amateur website. He created a self-imposed one-hour-a-day limit to his time playing video games as a form of Catholic discipline. In 2006, he was diagnosed with leukemia , and he passed away later that year. The cause for his sainthood started almost as soon as the requisite five years had passed. So far, in the church has attributed to Carlo one of two miracles necessary for full sainthood: the inexplicable healing of a young boy in Brazil. Already, Acutis has become known informally as the “patron saint of the internet.”

Catholic devotion to saints is full of stories and stuff and overwhelming accounts of miraculous details. Catholics love to tell you about their grandma’s devotion to St. Jude or how they attended blessings of the throat in honor of St. Blaise as kids. Prayer cards, medallions, and devotional candles pop up in cars and on people’s bodies. This is Catholic devotionalism–a set of prayer practices whereby “Catholics form intimate connections to heavenly beings, and create and maintain individual and collective religious identities,” as religion scholar Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada has put it. Devotional practices tend to have a gendered and generational stereotype: Grandmas and great-aunts seem way more likely to have a saint’s prayer card stuffed in their bag than a Gen Z college student. But the way Carlo Acutis’ sainthood is being discussed challenges those stereotypes: His devout tend to be young and internet-savvy, more interested in novena apps and screensavers of saints’ cards. His popularity points to the ways that Catholic devotionalism has been expanding into digital spaces.

What is particularly notable about the beatification of Carlo Acutis is the way devotion to this almost-saint is being marketed within the Catholic world. If you’re looking for Blessed Carlo Acutis prayer cards, you can find them on Etsy. T-shirts with the Blessed’s face on them are available for $21.55 here. There’s a song titled “Ctrl + D” in homage of Carlo available on Spotify. These things are more than the superficial trappings of Catholicism in the marketplace; they illustrate this kind of devotionalism that is both in the world, but not defined by it. Having a Blessed Carlo and his hashtag, #saintswearsneakers, mean that the lives of saints are a part of what it means to be a young adult Catholic in the 21st century.

There is a standard white, middle-class, U.S. Catholic belief that assumes a general decline in devotionalism among millennials and Gen Z. Yet the recent beatification of Carlo Acutis suggests that devotionalism is not so much in decline, but, rather, in the midst of a change. Story after story about Acutis highlights similar themes, like the lackluster faith of his parents and the Nikes and jeans he wore upon burial. They reference how much he loved his PlayStation and how he worked hard to balance his love of technology with his love of Catholic practice—a balance that led him to design his database for Eucharistic miracles around the world. When Carlo was a young teenager, he reportedly said that the eucharist was his “highway to heaven”; he saw his website as an act of devotion.

Carlo’s sneakers and video games matter because Gen Z Catholics are looking for ways to see themselves in the saints. In my own ethnographic research on young adult Catholic identity, I have frequently heard millennials talk about their Catholicism in terms of learning how to “be saints.” Baby Boomer and Greatest Generation Catholics in the U.S. tended to choose particular saints for devotion based on their awe at the saint’s utter inimitability. But younger Catholics are looking for ways to embody their own potential sainthood. As a model of almost-sainthood, Carlo’s life is being touted not because he did anything so incredible during his life (several accounts point out that it is his very “ordinariness”), but because his life as an up-and-coming computer geek is quite imitable. Of course, saints with the mind-blowing powers of bilocation or bloody stigmata still matter. But, for young Catholics, those saints  are less attractive than devotion to Carlo or, before him, Blessed Pier Giorgio, the patron saint of young Catholics and of World Youth Day, whose pipe-smoking, mountain-climbing demeanor models a kind of hipster Catholicism.

Younger Catholics look to the lives of the saints for role models of how to be Catholic—in particular, role models who know how to be (relatively) conversant in contemporary culture, but not too consumed by it. Want to be a Catholic mountain climber? You’ve got Pier Giorgio. Want to be a Catholic computer programmer? You’ve got Carlo. The young adult Catholics who are cultivating a devotion to Carlo are concerned with how they present themselves in the world—on college campuses, for example, they play sports and host tailgating parties (when we aren’t in a pandemic). But they also attend Mass and organize Bible studies. They are trying to navigate a tension between being active in their generation’s cultural context, but not constituted by it. Their devotionalism is about Gen Z and Millennials figuring out how to both invested in cultural norms and challenging them.

The popularity of Blessed Carlo reflects how young Catholics’ devotional attitudes and habits are shifting. Becoming a saint is a status that can be achieved and it is important to find role models of how to do that in all aspects of life. This includes the many ways lives happen online. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, the internet has become the place where social and religious lives are happening: Young Catholics might be going to college via Zoom or hosting club meetings over Google Meet and study sessions on Facetime; their faith-sharing groups and Mass are happening via Instagram Stories or Facebook Live. But even before the coronavirus forced Gen Z to invent what it means to grab “virtual drinks,” the line between “IRL” and “actual real life” was blurry—Instagram posts have real-world impacts on people’s lives; TikTok dances affect the choices people make. The internet is not a neutral place and, like Carlo, many young Catholics are concerned with how to make their virtual lives reflect their Catholic identity.

Before Carlo was unofficially dubbed the patron of the internet, Pope John Paul II named an official saint of the internet, St. Isidore of Seville—because Isidore was a tireless categorizer of knowledge in the seventh century. That Carlo is being added to internet patrons reflects the shift in the way the internet is used. We now know that the internet as much more simply a catalog of information, but an interactive space. Catholic devotionalism is one of the more adaptable Catholic practices. Updating the patron of the internet reflects this creativity.

This isn’t (necessarily) about praying to Carlo (or St. Isidore) when your Zoom connection is on the fritz. Assigning non-Catholic things their own patron saint is supposed to have a sanctifying effect. By promoting a member of the communion of saints as patron of the internet, young adult Catholics are able to see sainthood as possible in all aspects of daily life, including online. No aspect of life can escape the reach of Catholic devotionalism. This might mean that young Catholics pray a novena to Carlo while waiting to hear on a job interview or post a quote from Carlo on their Instagram account. But it might also mean that they just know that the internet is has Catholic potential. To have a patron saint of the internet is to mark the internet as a Catholic space.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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