Who is the patron saint of the internet?
For the Word on Fire movement, which has made a commitment to the new media one of its missionary pillars, this is no small question. I first discovered Bishop Barron online while browsing YouTube over a decade ago in my early twenties, and the ministry played a key role in my own reversion to the Catholic faith. The internet in general, and Word on Fire in particular, has likewise shaped the spiritual journeys of countless others.
Bishop Barron has also emphasized Word on Fire’s rootedness in the Mystical Body. But while the ministry has five go-to heavenly patrons—Thérèse of Lisieux, Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II, Fulton Sheen, and John Henry Newman—none is known as the patron saint of the most powerful communications tool the world has ever known. In point of fact, no one is—at least, not officially. But there is one saint who is increasingly regarded as the patron saint of the internet, and curiously enough, it’s a bishop and scholar from the sixth century.
The digital patronage of St. Isidore of Seville—who is also a Doctor of the Church and the last of the Latin Fathers—seems to have originated with a grassroots effort in the late 1990s. Catholics working in the booming internet world began looking for their own patron, and they honed in on Isidore. This effort led to the formation of the Order of St. Isidore of Seville in January 2000. According to its website, the order’s goal is three-fold: to celebrate the beginning of the third millennium, to honor Isidore as the patron saint of the internet, and to promote the ideals of Christian chivalry online. A year later, in advance of the release of a pontifical council’s document on “Ethics in Internet,” Vatican sources confirmed that Isidore of Seville was the leading candidate for patron saint of the internet. The document came and went with no mention of Isidore—but to this day, according to both popular piety and Google, he remains its de facto patron.
The reason is simple: information. The awkward inquiry of one journalist in the nineties—“What is ‘internet,’ anyway?”—initially had an equally awkward response: it is an “information superhighway.” It was obvious even in the days of Dogpile that what defined the internet was its ability to store and rapidly transmit massive amounts of data. Behind every debate today about the internet’s impact, whether it be on culture, privacy, politics, or education, is its remarkable power to inform.
This is precisely why Isidore has become the leading candidate for the job, for he was the first scholar to heroically attempt to compile and systematize all existing human knowledge. His best-known work, the Etymologiae, is an encyclopedic storehouse of information that quotes from 154 authors, both Christian and pagan (including what was then known of Aristotle). It covers grammar and rhetoric, medicine and law, God and the Church, languages and peoples, geography and agriculture, and war and jurisprudence—among other subjects. And far from fading away after late antiquity, the Etymologiae greatly influenced educational institutions of the Middle Ages and even enjoyed continued popularity into the Renaissance, giving rise to ten different printed editions between 1470 and 1529, as well as many imitations.
But Isidore was not simply a detached academic or analyst locked away in his study pursuing abstract knowledge. He was also, as Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged in his General Audience on Isidore, a man who understood the importance of a balance between contemplation and training in “the stadium of active life.” “Just as we must love God in contemplation,” Isidore wrote, “so we must love our neighbor with action.”
In fact, his entire encyclopedic project also played into a more practical and evangelical one. At the time, the barbarian Visigoths had long been in control of Spain, pulling it into intellectual darkness and spiritual and social disorder. But Isidore drew on the resources of classical and Christian learning to further his family’s ongoing project of converting the Visigoth kings from Arianism to Catholicism. He succeeded, not only growing the Church and promoting orthodoxy but launching an educational renaissance in Seville and beyond. Under his efforts, a more civilized, unified, and spiritually energized social order emerged.
As we look to the “digital continent,” as Benedict termed it, we face an ocean of human knowledge that makes the Etymologiae look like child’s play. Not only can you access Isidore’s entire work in a matter of seconds—you can access just about any major written work or fact. As Bishop Barron put it in Arguing Religion, search engines “give us something that our ancestors could only imagine in their wildest fantasies: practically instant access to most of the information available to the human race. The press of a button can give me an article from the Summa theologiae of Aquinas, the entire Divine Comedy of Dante, a detailed summary of the theory of relativity, the Spanish word for ‘dance,’ the final score of game three of the 1937 World Series, and all of the characters on F Troop. Whatever our minds (if not our hearts) desire is readily available for our consumption.”
We also face a spiritual and social disorder that matches the intensity of the internet’s power and reach. If you were to transport the average denizen of sixth-century Seville to today, they would probably be amazed by the great learning anyone with internet access could have, at any time, for free—and equally amazed at the relentless stupidity with which we squander the opportunity. Time and time again, we chase the winds of trends and falsehoods, all sorts of heretical ideas and dangerous behaviors, and a bedlam of cross-talking voices driven by competing ideologies. We look to distract the mind and boost the ego, and the internet offers an abundance of ways to do both—especially as social media becomes the heart of the digital world.
In short, we face a landscape that is in desperate need of an army of Isidores—men and women who are willing and able to dwell in the Etymologiae of Google. We don’t do it simply to pull from stacks of knowledge or add to them, nor to topple them over in the name of the unknowable. Instead, like Isidore, we engage with the breadth of human reason precisely as people of faith, sifting and organizing it in order to humanize and civilize the world around us, to communicate the Good News of Christ’s Gospel, and to invite others into a relationship with his Church.
The internet has opened up a new, confusing era of information overload, and internet evangelizers certainly have their work cut out for them—but until the Church declares otherwise, we have an intercessor to call on.
St. Isidore, pray for us!
This piece first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Evangelization & Culture, the quarterly journal of the Word on Fire Institute. You can learn more and become a member today to read more pieces like this.