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The Vatican is bustling with activity. The cardinals cruise the long corridors, murmuring, all astir. Names are raised, one after another. History books are consulted, individuals come and go - testifying, explaining, persuading. Sometime in the next few weeks the die will be cast and all will know who has been chosen as patron saint of the Internet.

This is no paltry matter. Patron saints are holy figures, often well-known priests or famous archbishops whose actions in a certain field induced believers to adopt them as an image to which they direct their prayers. Matthew the apostle, for example, was the tax collector of the Roman Church in the Middle Ages. He also succeeded in convincing Jews that the messiah, Jesus, had arrived. It is no wonder that he was appointed as patron saint of the bankers. Sometimes it is a little harder to flesh out the reason for which a saint has been assigned a specific protection turf. For example, Saint Servatus, who lived in the fourth century and is described as having spent most of his life engaged in political scheming within the Catholic Church, was assigned the job of protecting those with foot problems.

Over the course of two millennia of Christian history, the concept of patron saint has suffered from inflation. The "Catholic Community Forum" Internet site reports that there are currently some 4,280 patron saints, protecting 1567 different areas of mortal endeavor. Is it any wonder that in recent years there has been heightened pressure on the Catholic Church to choose a saint for surfers of the Internet as they make their way through the dark pathways of cyberspace?

The church took its task seriously. While in the past even a junior-ranking archbishop could appoint any patron saint to act on behalf of the needy, the bureaucracy has now taken over. Forms have to be filled in, a list of personal references must be compiled. The pope convenes a committee to consider the application, which wrestles with the problem and discusses the issue. Only when the committee has completed its deliberations is a proclamation issued. Serious business.

To date, approximately 5,000 Web surfers have submitted their recommendations for potential patron saints via a special Web site (www.santiebeati.it) established for this purpose. This stage ends in a few weeks, whereupon the six leading candidates will be submitted to the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Cult and Discipline of Sacrament, which those in the know claim is responsive and sensitive to the public mood. Nevertheless, the criticism has already begun: the Internet site is in Italian, and there are deep concerns that the selection will be biased in favor of Italian-born patrons.

At this stage, the leading candidate is San Giacomo Alberione (an Italian, of course), who in the early 20th century founded an important printing press for the Catholic Church. The problem with Alberione is that he has not yet been beatified by the church. The lack of the "St." title on his resume is likely to harm his chances of getting the job. In second place is Isidore of Seville, a Spaniard born in the sixth century who already serves as the patron saint of computer technicians and of television. Isidore is considered an important scholar in Catholic history, who compiled a dictionary and encyclopedia that was in use for over a thousand years. Without a doubt, the man is a serious contender to be the protector of those searching for information on the Internet. However, a study of his writings shows that he is, for lack of any other way of putting it, a bit of a nudnik. "The more you devote yourself to study of the sacred utterances, the richer will be your understanding of them, just as the more the soil is tilled, the richer the harvest," he used to say, over and over, to his students. A trifle oppressive.

Other candidates for the post are St. Jude, the patron of lost causes, a fact that makes him a natural candidate. His only liability is that Jude is confused with Judas (of Iscariot fame) and therefore he is not all that popular among Catholics. St. Christopher (circa third century) might also be equal to the task, as he is responsible for "lost travelers," of which there are many on the Internet. On the other hand, Christopher is an awfully busy saint. He protects no fewer than 42 different population groups, including truck drivers, fruit merchants, gardeners, people who suffer from toothaches, and Germany. His appointment might diminish the value of the Internet, which is in need of proper, full-time attention from its patron saint.

Three other candidates are a little younger, and are therefore linked to technology of one form or another: St. John Bosco, a promoter of education for young people; Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest, who established radio stations and wanted to build a film studio where he would film movies to promote salvation; and St. Alphonsus Liguori, an 18th-century figure known for his motivational writings.

A Catholic Church spokesman told the news agencies that at this stage, the Holy See has not yet made a decision on the patron saint of Internet. He also refused to confirm or deny the rumor that the selection would eventually be the archangel Gabriel. After all, it was Gabriel who delivered the message to the Virgin Mary that she was going to give birth to Jesus. Yet if that is Gabriel's prior work experience, might it not be more appropriate for him to be the patron saint of e-mail?