Mention the phrase “patron saints” and plenty of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, will think it a quaint, outdated custom that assigns a heavenly protector to keep an eye on barrel-stave makers and ward off Viking invasions. In fact, patron saints keep up with the times.
Back in the early 1990s, when the Internet was becoming popular, a group of Catholic webmasters adopted St. Isidore of Seville as patron of the web — they took Isidore’s 30-volume encyclopedia on just about every topic as the world’s first database. Typically, as in the case of St. Isidore and the Internet, it’s the folks in the pews who associate a particular saint with a cause, or an ailment, or a profession, but sometimes the pope weighs in and formally names a patron saint. For example, Pope John Paul II appointed St. Francis of Assisi the patron of the environmental movement (an easy call if ever there was one). And so we come to another patron saint named by a pope.
During the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, a group of astronomers came to the Vatican for a private meeting with the Holy Father. As they gathered in the audience chamber, they expected the pope would deliver a brief, conventional speech on some religious topic. Instead, Pius XII surprised his visitors by launching into a discussion of sun spots.
This example is not out of the ordinary. Consult any listing of Pius XII’s speeches and you’ll find him addressing a host of specialized, non-religious subjects.
As a man who made it a hobby to keep up with the latest developments in the sciences, Pope Pius was fascinated by the emergence of television as the hot, new communications medium of the 1950s. The possibilities of the new technology impressed him, so much so that in 1958 he gave television its own patron saint: he chose St. Clare of Assisi, whose feast day was two days ago, August 11. At first glance it is hard to see any link between TV and a 13th-century cloistered nun, but stayed tuned.
St. Clare is best known as St. Francis of Assisi’s closest colleague. In 1212, when she was 19 years old, Clare ran away from home in the to become the first female member of Francis’ religious community. But being the first Franciscan nun is not what made Clare exceptional; rather, it was her unswerving commitment to St. Francis’ ideal of Christ-like poverty.
Francis wanted the members of his order to be as poor and humble as Jesus Christ had been when He was personally present on earth. But what was appealing in theory could be difficult to put into practice. Within Francis’ own lifetime some Franciscans who found the rule of poverty too hard toned down their founder’s ideal and began to acquire real estate.
But not Clare and her nuns. Yes, they had a convent, but they refused to own anything that would generate income; they relied entirely on the good will of donors for their support. Two popes thought Clare was taking St. Francis’ notion of perfection too literally, but she would not back down. For 41 years Clare clung to her principles, and she won — although only at the last minute. In 1253, as she lay on her deathbed, Pope Innocent IV traveled to Assisi to see Clare for the last time, and he brought a gift: a papal document that gave formal approval to Clare’s rule.
None of this is remotely related to television, of course, but Pius XII knew what he was doing. He recalled an episode from St. Clare’s life that one could say prefigured TV. A witness at Clare’s canonization proceedings testified that one Christmas Eve St. Clare was so ill she could not leave her bed to attend Midnight Mass. After all the nuns had gone, Clare sighed and said, “See Lord, I am left here alone with You.” At that moment God granted Clare a vision in which she saw and heard the Mass as clearly as if she had been present in the convent chapel. Pope Pius interpreted this vision as a kind of miraculous simulcast, and named St. Clare the patron of television. If Pius were alive today, he’d expand Clare’s patronage to include cable.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life and Saints Behaving Badly.