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Why the impending sainthood of video game-playing teenager Carlo Acutis captures the Catholic imagination  

An image of Carlo Acutis unveiled at a Catholic ceremony.
Carlo Acutis, a 15-year-old Italian boy who died in 2006 of leukemia, has been cleared for canonization and is expected to be the first millennial saint. AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

The news that the canonization of Italian teenager Carlo Acutis was imminent made headlines and continues to capture the imagination of Catholics across the globe. 

The 15-year-old who died of leukemia in 2006 would be the first millennial saint and likely the first to learn how to code and enjoy Nintendo Game Boy.

But it was Acutis’ religious devotion and use of digital technology to teach others about Catholicism, through sites he created about Eucharistic miracles, that brought him to the attention of church faithful. 

In May, Pope Francis recognized a second miracle attributed to Acutis, clearing the way for his likely canonization next year.

Northeastern Global News spoke to Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, a Northeastern professor of religion and anthropology, about what makes Acutis suitable for sainthood in the digital age. Riccardi-Swartz is also the author of “Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia.”

Headshot of Sarah Riccardi-Swartz.
Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, Assistant Professor of Religion and Anthropology, says Carlo Acutis practiced “digital self denial,” reportedly limiting video game playing to one or two hours a week. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

What is so compelling about Acutis’ digital narrative?

Acutis’ devotion to Catholicism, combined with his seeming normality — such as playing Pokemon and video games — means there is spiritual hope for any Catholic.

He was not a monk or a well-educated theologian. He was a faithful Catholic with a social media and gamer following.

That’s compelling to the average young Catholic in the pews. It means anyone can achieve holiness.

Is Acutis’ pending canonization a sign the Catholic Church is in step with the digital age?

Acutis’ pending canonization speaks to the transformation of religious rituals through digital technology.

With Acutis, we have a potential saint (he’s a Blessed right now) with output based in ones and zeroes.

Important here is how AI-based algorithms — he created websites and was a gamer — helped, in many ways, to support institutional claims about Acutis’ holiness.

Technology as a factor for sainthood is something scholars of Christianity will be talking about for quite some time.

How are religious communities using digital technology?

A variety of Christian groups, evangelicals included, are using the internet and social media to create community, produce religious or theological content and shape social issues.

Religious communities are finding new ways to engage with digital technology, especially since COVID, which provided many believers more time online.

Are people increasingly turning online instead of in person for sources of spirituality?

In my own work with Orthodox Christians, the internet has become a way to engage in spiritual communities across diffuse geographies and even continents.

I think online religious expression should be thought of as an aspect of one’s embodied spirituality. It’s an extension of the in-person community.

Can digital evangelism be problematic?

I’ve seen the dangers of digital evangelism firsthand in my research.

The democratized space of the internet in which anyone with Wi-Fi can create content means that there are now a multiplicity of voices and religious brands to follow, like and share.

Not all of these content creators are authorized to speak for religious communities, and many have dangerous political views that are coded as religious or theological.

As society becomes increasingly digitized, religious communities will face more challenges and possibilities because of social media and content producers.

Catholic websites say Acutis restricted his video game playing to one or two hours a week. What kind of message does that send to teens, not to mention their parents?

If we think about this practice as one founded in the ascetic history of Catholicism — that of self-denial — then Acutis’ limited gaming schedule is likely another reason why he is on the road to canonization.

For young Catholics, Acutis’ digital self-denial, in a cultural moment entirely saturated with technology and screens, might serve as a guide for how to get offline and engage more deeply with their local communities.

Acutis used tech to spread Catholicism, to serve the church and to have fun.