Rome, Jan. 30--The Archangel Gabriel is one of Christianity's great communicators--it was he who brought word to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus, the New Testament says. So it was only natural that when a search began for a patron saint for the Internet, Gabriel's name arose.

According to a poll being conducted by a Roman Catholic organization in northern Italy, he is now running in sixth place. The Web site--www.santiebeati.it--is soliciting votes with the aim of having an Internet patron saint named by Easter. "We had lots of requests for a patron, so we decided the Internet was the best tool for finding one," said Roberto Diani, an Internet adviser for Italy's Conference of Bishops. The official choice will be made by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Cult and Discipline of Sacrament.

For all the newfangled methodology, the organizers are following an ancient tradition. For hundreds of years, Christians in villages, towns, and cities got together and proclaimed a saintly hero and protector. Later, popes set the rules for sainthood, but nominations came from the field. Now, in the name of professions and causes never imagined a millennium ago, Catholics are lining up patron saints.

Recently, motorcyclists got their own patron saint, endorsed by the Vatican--St. Columbanus, a medieval Irish monk who walked through Europe setting up monasteries. He ended up in Bobbio, Italy, and cyclists there lobbied for him as protector.

The patron saint hunt is a subset of a boom in saint recognition under John Paul II's reign. These days, saints aren't so much marching as flooding in. During the past quarter-century, he presided over 465 canonizations, the formal declarations that recognize full-fledged saints, and 1,297 beatifications, the designation of "blesseds" who stand on a rung below sainthood. That compares with 447 canonizations and 1,310 beatifications in the preceding 400 years.

In one day, the pope beatified 233 nuns, priests, and lay people killed by Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. "This is a popular tradition in full bloom, to say the least," said Severio Gaeta, a sainthood expert at the Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana.

There will be no slowdown this year. The pope is scheduled to set about 30 people on the road to sainthood. The most widely known, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, will be beatified in October. She spent her life tending to the dying in impoverished India. Her mission strikes a particular chord for this ecumenical pope: She hailed from Albania, a mostly Muslim country, and ministered in an overwhelmingly Hindu country.

Among the personages set for beatification this year is San Giacomo Alberione, founder of a major Catholic publishing house. He also leads the Internet patron race with 29 percent of the vote.

The others in the top six are Gabriel, St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesian order; Sant'Alfonso Maria de Liguori, a bishop and prolific writer; and Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who favored use of technical advances to spread the Gospel. Finally, there's St. Clare of Assisi, already, she's the patron saint of television.

Individual groups can put in for patrons. Whether Gabriel climbs in the Santiebeati poll, he might be pleased to know that he was named recently by the Vatican as patron saint of telecommunications officers in the armies of Colombia and El Salvador.

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