Faith and the internet

Rita of Cascia, a star
of social networks

06 November 2021

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok: “places of worship” to express devotion

Today, as has happened somewhat for everything else, we can even carry prayer cards on our phones, and all together. The Instagram pages dedicated to saints consist basically of images accompanied by sentences and prayers. In addition, thanks to videos and live broadcasts, social media platforms are “places of worship” at a distance. The first social network on which popular devotions appeared, however, was Facebook, where the most numerous communities still meet. It is here, perhaps, where we can speak of virtual votive shrines, with votive offerings in the form of emoticons and gifs, and requests for grace via post.

Then, certain saints begin to appear on Tik Tok. A Brazilian account, “santaritadecascia”, is named after Saint Rita, and goes from the most classic videos, with sacred music and ritual scenes, to those that are a bit daring. These latter include images of the saint combined with the rhythm of electronic music and movements of priests transformed into salsa and merengue steps.

The queen of the web is definitely her, the saint of miracles and impossible causes, Saint Rita of Cascia. On Instagram, she has several dedicated profiles, with almost 2,700 followers on the one most followed among the Italians, and almost 25,000 on the two Brazilian accounts. In addition to these, there are the devotees’ fanpages, with a total of over 50 thousand followers. However, the most successful is the profile of the nuns of the monastery of Cascia with almost twenty thousand followers on Instagram, and over 650 thousand on Facebook. On Saturday, October 2, for the feast of grandparents, Mother Natalina posted a sweet video message of good wishes: “Grandparents are the past, but they are not gone...”.

In general, when not dealing with monasteries or ecclesiastical institutions, these profiles are managed from the bottom up. The individual accounts or groups, which are always very active, include prayers, images, anniversaries, and life stories of the saints. There are requests for intercession too, such as the one “for a couple in crisis of love”: “Lord Jesus, what is happening to us? For some time now things haven’t been going well between us...we fight over nothing...we shout, we offend each other...we spy on each other and we control each other. Lord Jesus, the wind is violent, the waves are threatening, through the intercession of Saint Rita, saint of the family and forgiveness, do not let us sink, for our good, for the good of our children, for the good of all”. There in the comments, dozens of people gathered around the couple in crisis, with some amen and many emoticons, joined hands, hearts and red roses. The roses of Saint Rita.

Saint Rosalie also has thousands of followers, and even for her, profiles in her name are flanked by those of the devotees. More than three thousand people on Instagram, and more than 110 thousand on Facebook follow the cathedral of Palermo’s official account. The Santuzza of the alley is addressed almost as if she were a family member, with prayers, souvenir photos and thoughts of goodnight, even in Palermo dialect: “O santuzza Rusulia, tuttu u populu è cu tia,/ t'addumanna a dinucchiuni tanti grazi e tu li duni!” [“O Saint Rosalie all the people are with you and they ask you to give them many graces and you donate them] Here, in addition to the amen and hearts, there is  a flood of gifs, be it angels flapping their wings, candles that light up, or rose petals that form hearts.

There is also great activity on social networks for St Therese of Lisieux, who owes her popularity to good communication. She died at the age of 25 in the Carmelite monastery where she had spent most of her life, and became a doctor of the church, and patron of France with Joan of Arc, patron of the missions, and protector of the sick. Her public image was greatly enhanced by her sister’s initiative, when in 1898, she published her diaries, collected under the title History of a Soul. The volume included theological reflections, mystical crises, letters, prayers, and plays and poems too.

The founder of one of the Facebook pages dedicated to her says, “This group came into being from my special relationship to the Saint. The purpose is to promote devotion to St Therese of Lisieux. To meditate on her powerful intercession with the heart of God. To pray for the whole world, for all the requests that arrive in our group”.  There are tens of thousands of Therese’s followers all over the world, one of whom explains why that is: “What moves us is her theology of the little way: to seek holiness not in great actions, but in daily acts, even the most insignificant”.

St Clare has two profiles open in her name, with the explicit definition of “public figure”. One of these is managed in Italy, on Facebook, which has thousands of followers and almost six thousand likes; the other, on Instagram, managed in the Middle East, where the Poor Clares have monasteries (Nazareth and Jerusalem in Israel, Yarzè in Lebanon, then there are Alexandria in Egypt, and Casablanca in Morocco). On the latter, the posts are mostly in Arabic, with a bit of English.

Giving us a more general dimension of the phenomenon is Antonio Salvati, in his essay contained in the book I santi-internauti. Esplorazioni agiografiche nel web [Internatut-Saints- Hagiographic Explorations in the Web] (published by Viella and edited by Claudia Santi and Daniele Solvi). According to his research, based on data collected up to April 1, 2019, fanpages dedicated to saints or Marian worship gather more than two and a half million Facebook users. In the Italian top ten league table is Saint Agatha, with over 63 thousand fans. St Faustina Kowalska, St Barbara, St Lucia, St Veneranda, St Anne, St Bridget are also social saints, although they reach less high peaks.

by Federica Re David