There’s a Patron Saint for That?

It may strike many Catholics as odd, improper, even irreverent, that there would be a patron saint of hangovers. We know from personal experience that through the prayers of the saints we are healed of serious ailments, protected in our travels, find stuff we’ve lost, and are granted a host of other graces. Why, then, would any saint get tangled up with people who don’t know when they’ve had enough?

It’s a fair question. But bear in mind that the saints are nothing if not sympathetic. Just as St. Dismas keeps an eye on thieves, St. Bibiana stands ready to nurse us through the occasional hangover. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, St. Bibiana did not have a drinking problem. It was a pun on the name of this fourth-century Roman martyr that made her the saint of the morning after: in Latin the word bibulus means to be fond of drinking.

There is no counting all the saints who are patrons of one thing or another. The tradition began in the early Middle Ages when every craft, every guild, and every profession wanted its own guardian saint. In most cases it is easy to see the connection. Saints Crispin and Crispinian made shoes, so they became the patron saints of cobblers. Legend says St. Luke painted a portrait of Our Lady and the Christ Child, so he became the patron saint of artists. But there are also situations where the principle works in reverse. Consider St. Sebastian, the handsome martyr who is always depicted stuck full of arrows. St. Sebastian is the patron saint of archers—not because he was an archer, but because he was the archers’ target.

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While devotion to patron saints is solidly Catholic, the origin of the idea goes back to ancient Rome, long before Christ was born. In pagan Rome a patron was a person—man or woman—of great wealth and political influence who out of a sense of public duty looked after a circle of not-so-fortunate individuals known as clients. It was considered good form and in the client’s best interest to stop by his patron’s house every morning to present his respects and perhaps offer a small gift. If the client needed a job, or relief from his creditors, or a doctor for someone in his family, he presented his petition to his patron during this morning visit. Invariably the patron would take care of the problem.

Although the basic concept of the patron saint is rooted in centuries of tradition, it is something that is always keeping up with the times. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who was imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz, is the patron of political prisoners. In 1980 Pope St. John Paul II formally proclaimed St. Francis of Assisi the patron of the environmental movement. And recently motorcyclists have adopted St. Columbanus as their patron saint. The way the bikers see it, the wandering Irish monk was a lot like them—he could not resist the call of the open road.

Then there is St. Joseph Cupertino (1603-1663), a Capuchin priest who according to the testimony of dozens of reliable eyewitnesses levitated and “flew” (or at least was propelled by some invisible power) through the air on at least 70 occasions over the course of 17 years. Astronauts who see a similarity between St. Joseph floating through the air and their own walks in outer space have adopted him as their patron.

In the early years of the eighteenth century Joseph’s cause for canonization was put forward and a priest named Prosper Lambertini was appointed to handle the case. Although one of the Church’s greatest experts on the saints, Lambertini cast a skeptical eye on reports of supernatural events, yet even he had to concede that the witnesses who gave testimony of Joseph’s levitations were of “unchallengeable integrity.” In 1753 Prosper Lambertini, now Pope Benedict XIV, declared Joseph of Cupertino “blessed.”

Unhappy families (today we call them “dysfunctional”) are nothing new. The family that produced St. Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861) was unpleasant from the beginning. Eugene’s father, Charles-Antoine de Mazenod, was a member of the French aristocracy, a man of genteel breeding and great intelligence. Unfortunately, all he possessed was his distinguished title; the Mazenod fortune had been squandered by Charles-Antoine’s father and grandfather. His fiancé, Marie-Rose Joannis, on the other hand, came from a family that was solidly bourgeois and very rich. When Charles-Antoine and Marie-Rose announced their engagement, the bride’s family insisted that the traditional dowry remain in Marie-Rose’s name, out of the reach of Charles-Antoine. This was just the first instance of the Joannis clan’s interference in the couple’s life.

In the interest of keeping Marie-Rose comfortable, her parents kept a steady stream of cash flowing into the Mazenod bank account, but such generosity came at a price. Marie-Rose’s mother meddled in every decision the couple tried to make; an emotionally unbalanced aunt demanded constant attention; and the other Joannis women took every opportunity to humiliate Charles-Antoine by reminding him that he had come into their family penniless.

The French Revolution further complicated the family’s troubles. As aristocrats the Mazenods’ lives were in danger, so in 1791, to escape the guillotine, they all fled to Venice, Italy. Four years later Marie-Rose walked out on her husband and her son, returned to France, and filed for divorce. Once the divorce had been finalized, she wrote triumphantly to her ex-husband, “Now you have nothing.” In later years as a priest and then as a bishop St. Eugene brought many lapsed Catholics back to the faith, but he was never able to reconcile his parents.

Pope Pius XII was a man with wide-ranging interests who was especially intrigued by the latest developments in the sciences. In the 1950s, when television emerged as a new communications and entertainment medium, Pope Pius was fascinated—so much so that in 1958 he gave television its own patron saint: he chose St. Clare of Assisi (c. 1194-1253).

At first glance it is hard to see any link between TV and the thirteenth-century cloistered nun who was St. Francis of Assisi’s closest colleague, yet the pope knew what he was doing. He recalled an episode from St. Clare’s life that one could say prefigured television. 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.

But St. Clare is not the only patron saint of high technology. Since 1999 St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) has been venerated as the patron saint of the Internet. It began when some Catholics involved in the web industry came up with the idea of petitioning John Paul II to assign them their own patron saint. It would be more accurate to say that they wanted the Holy Father to confirm the patron they had chosen for themselves—St. Isidore. Selecting a sixth-century bishop as the patron of twentieth-century technology strikes many Catholics as quirky, but the webmasters had a reason for their choice. In life St. Isidore had compiled a 20-volume encyclopedia of all existing knowledge. The Catholic webmasters interpreted this massive achievement as the world’s first database.

And the desire for more patron saints continues. Time and again magicians and circus performers have petitioned the Vatican to formally approve as their patron St. John Bosco, who as a boy was a skillful juggler and acrobat. Vegetarians revere St. Nicholas of Tolentino, who never ate meat. People who suffer from asthma would like the pope to name as their patron St. Bernadette of Lourdes, who suffered from the same malady. Such petitions are the most natural thing in the world. Who among us would not want to have a friend in high places?

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail of “Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” painted by Guercino in 1641.


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