Blessed Carlo Acutis watched ‘Pokémon.’ That’s my kind of saint.
Before I began preparing for the sacrament of confirmation, I had no strong connection to the saints. They seemed lofty and inaccessible—locked away behind a stained glass window, hanging high above my adolescent head. Their job was to be saints, my job was to be me. I never had any sense of a call to saintliness, and I never deeply considered the possibility that living saints walked among us.
When I had to choose a patron saint for my confirmation, the list of saints I knew much about was short. I had not yet been educated by the Jesuits, so saints from the Society of Jesus were still unfamiliar. I had a vague idea of who Joan of Arc was. In the end, after less than thorough research, I chose St. Nicholas. He was the most familiar saint, though mainly through the commodified, secular version who runs a magical toy empire and sponsors Coca-Cola. Reading up on him in Wikipedia, I was inspired by his spirit of secret charity. I was touched by the image of St. Nicholas anonymously leaving coins for those in need.
Acutis’s beatification is a beacon to all those who live their lives, for better or for worse, increasingly online.
My choice of St. Nicholas was sincere, but I did not feel particularly connected to him. The idea that a saint could be interested in anything other than standing still and looking holy in a piece of art was foreign to me. What would have happened if I had encountered a saint I could connect to? Might I have had a better sense of how to live a Christ-like life?
Enter Blessed Carlo Acutis. Acutis died of leukemia in 2006 at the age of 15, but not before he had the chance to make an impact on this world. The Italian teenager was an example of holiness to those around him, and he used his computer skills to create an online database documenting eucharistic miracles. On Oct. 10 of this year, his beatification Mass was held in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.
Before his beatification, his mother, Antonia Salzano, described him as an “influencer for God” who spread light in an online landscape clouded by darkness. Pope Francis encouraged young people to follow Acutis’s example in “Christus Vivit,” his address to young people after the meeting of the Synod of Bishops in 2018, because he “knew how to use the new communications technology to transmit the Gospel, to communicate values and beauty.”
My teenage self might have found it remarkable that, although he would eventually be declared blessed, Acutis lived the life of a normal, 21st-century teenager.
My teenage self might have found it remarkable that, although he would eventually be declared blessed, Acutis lived the life of a normal, 21st-century teenager who loved soccer, watched “Pokémon” and played PlayStation—not unlike myself at that age.
In My Life With the Saints, James Martin, S.J., writes that “none of us are meant to be Thérèse of Lisieux or Pope John XXIII or Thomas More. We’re meant to be ourselves, and meant to allow God to work in and through our own individuality, our own humanity.” This account, which sheds a more relatable, down-to-earth light on the saints, was instrumental in changing my personal relationship with the saints and, through that, changing my relationship with God.
Each of us is endowed with unique talents that can be used, as my Jesuit educators taught me, ad majorem dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God.” For Carlo Acutis, his gift was his connection to his computer. Acutis’s beatification sends the message that any one of us could be saintly, and all of the saints were, just like us, simply human.
Acutis’s beatification sends the message that any one of us could be saintly, and all of the saints were, just like us, simply human.
Acutis’s beatification is a beacon to all those who live their lives, for better or for worse, increasingly online. As someone who can be described as extremely online, I am the last person to deny that online spaces can be soul-crushing—even soul-endangering. The internet breeds toxicity in a unique way. I know in my heart that the image I present online is not always my best self, not always the person God is calling me to be. It’s harder to ask what Jesus would do on Twitter than to ask what he would do in the early first century A.D.
Online, there is a strong incentive to exert a high level of control over our self-presentation, often to the point of inauthenticity. In Jia Tolentino’s essay “The I in the Internet,” from her book Trick Mirror, she argues that the internet’s contemporary economic model “runs on exploiting attention and monetizing the self.” To Tolentino, the internet makes “solidarity...a matter of identity rather than politics or morality,” so altruism is merely instrumental toward individual brand-building. This phenomenon is most apparent in trends such as videos of influencers donating large sums to homeless people, but it invades almost all online behavior in subtler ways, placing more weight on being seen as virtuous than actually being virtuous.
Carlo Acutis’s example can lead people toward an online footprint that serves a mission higher than personal branding.
This framework of self-serving solidarity tricks us into thinking our virtue signaling has a real impact. (Yes, I am a recurring offender—my confirmation saint, who favored secret charity, would not be pleased.) Acutis’s words foretold our new online reality: “We are all born original, but many die as photocopies,” more interested in a constructed identity than an authentic one.
Yet despite the internet’s capacity to use us and to make us use each other, Carlo Acutis’s example can lead people toward an online footprint that serves a mission higher than personal branding.
It is easy to despair over the vast swath of negativity we encounter online. Still, rather than dismissing the internet as a place that brings out only our worst selves, we should look to models of holiness to guide our behavior. Every new form of mass communication since the printing press has played a role in evangelization. And the internet can, against common intuition, be a place of consolation.
I have found support from religious and secular online communities since I was a teenager.
I have found support from religious and secular online communities since I was a teenager. For all its baggage, even the infamously volatile space of “Catholic Twitter” is a place where people share prayer requests and build each other up. Online spaces have also been a vehicle for recent social justice movements. The connections I have made through online spaces, including even video games, are real. And just like my offline connections, who is to say that I can’t be a witness to my faith in my actions and in my words online as well as in person?
As Pope Francis said in his recent encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” “The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.” We must seek out and build online spaces with this goal in mind, just as it should be our goal in in-person encounters. A new patron saint of the internet might be just the nudge Catholics, in particular, need to spark this kind of change.
The church must work to meet people where they are. Some of the digital evangelization geared to my generation falls painfully flat, like a faith version of “Pokémon Go to the polls.” It is important that young and tech-savvy people take on this mission so that these digital programs stop feeling so out of touch.
More than ever, we need a vision of how to stay connected better rather than tear each other down, to encounter each other rather than sell ourselves, online and off. We need a saint who knew what it is like to live online, because that is where so many of us go searching for ourselves.
Blessed Carlo Acutis, pray for us.