Who is the Patron Saint of Gamers? UPDATED

Short answer: there is none.

However, searches for variations of that question brought a lot of people to my gaming blog, probably because the sidebar included a picture of St. Balthasar, the Patron Saint of Playing Card Manufacturers.  Since I lecture on Church history and have a sizable collection of hagiographic reference material, I thought I’d sort it out so people didn’t go wandering all over the internet getting half-formed ideas about saints, patronage, gaming, and related subjects. It turned out to be a remarkably popular post, so I’ve revised and updated it for God and the Machine, integrating some suggestions from readers.

St. Balthasar

St. Balthasar is frequently listed as the “Patron Saint of Playing Card Manufacturers.” I’ve taught the Saints to 8th graders for years, and I have to tell you: that’s one of the most mysterious things I’ve ever found. I have dug deeply in order to figure out how and why Balthasar got attached not to card playing or cards, but to playing card manufacturers. 

Balthasar, along with with Melchior and Caspar, is one of the magi who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. However, the Bible 1) does not name the magi, 2) does not say how many there were (they are usually depicted as 3 men because there were 3 gifts, but some ancient sources believed there were 12), and 3) does not say what they were (astrologers, magicians, kings, or simply “wise men”). Names of the wise men don’t appear before the 5th century.

We know nothing else about St. Balthasar. There are several purported tombs of the magi, but no one takes their claims seriously.

If there is some source or document that explains why St. Balthasar was given the care of people who make playing cards, it has thus far eluded me. Early cards were simply made by printers or artists.

In the absence of hard evidence explaining the Balthasar/card connection, the most obvious reason may be the actual answer. Balthasar was a “king.” Playing cards have “kings.” Ergo, it was natural to pick one of the Three Kings, and Balthasar got the job.

St. Cajetan

St. Cajetan (known as St. Cayetano in Spanish-speaking countries) is the Patron Saint of Gamblers. Cajetan, born in 1480, was a lawyer and the son of a wealthy family. Driven by a desire to reform the Church, he traveled to Rome, became a priest, and founded a religious order. He used his family fortune to create hospitals that served both the physical and moral needs of the poor. He also established pawn shops and credit unions to provide loans to the poor.

Cajetan’s connection to gambling is obscure. Popular lore says the people would ask him for a favor, and bet him a rosary that he couldn’t come through. Since he always came through, he was able to get people to pray more. Based on what I know of saints, this feels like a pious retrofitting of a reason to a patronage, and it just doesn’t sound likely.

It’s more probable that his loans helped people get out from under the predatory interest rates of loan sharks, and many of the these loans were the result of gambling debts. Then, as now, a compulsive gambler could destroy his family, so it seems more likely that Cajetan probably helped problem gamblers get back on the right path both financially and morally.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga

One of my readers, Mark Franceschini, had this to say: 

“I’ve always recommended St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568 – 1591), based on a story I once read. He was playing chess with some seminarians, and someone posed the question, “what would you do if you knew you had but an hour to live?” One said he would go to confession, another that he would pray before the Blessed Sacrament, but not Saint Aloysius. He reasoned that, since his superiors gave him permission to play the game, and he had no other pressing duties, clearly, this is what God wanted him to do. So, in his final hour, he would finish the game! Sounds like the Patron Saint of Gamers to me!”

St. Matthias

Another reader, Paul, remarked that St. Matthias should be added to the list since he was chosen to replace Judas by a drawing of lots, as we learn in Acts: 1:23-26: “And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, ‘Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles.”

Yes, they chose the successor to the betrayer of Jesus by rolling dice.

Okay, so they probably weren’t dice, although they could have been: dice date back at least 5000 years, and were used in ancient Greece and Rome. Casting lots was a common method of diving the will of God in Judaism, with a chief priest drawing one of two sacred stones from his breastplate in answer to a binary question. These were the Urim and Thummim. You can find some examples of lot-casting in 1 Chronicles 24 and 26, and, of course, in Jonah and Esther. “Purim” is the Hebrew word  for “lots,” as well as the name of the Jewish holy day commemorating the events of Esther.

The problem is that Matthias vanishes without a trace after this. (Perhaps that 12th apostle slot was cursed.) He may have been crucified in Ethiopia, stoned in Jerusalem, or died of old age. This last one is unlikely: few early Christian leaders died peacefully in their beds. Of the original 12 apostles, only St. John died a natural death.

Matthias is the patron for alcoholics, carpenters, tailors and … the town of Gary, Indiana.

St. Teresa of Avila

Richard Mehlinger tweeted to mention St. Teresa of Avila, who is already the patron saint of chess players. Like many patronages, which arise from popular devotion, this one isn’t always attached to Teresa, and appears to be based on the following passage in her Way of Perfection:

Do not imagine that a great part of my work is done. No, I have only been ‘placing the board’ for the game. You asked me to teach you the foundation of prayer, my daughters, although God did not establish me on this foundation, for I am almost destitute of these virtues; yet I know no other.

But, be sure that any one who does not understand how to set the pieces in the game of chess will never be able to play well, nor, if he does not know how to give check, will he ever succeed in effecting checkmate. You may blame me for speaking of a game, for such things are neither played nor permitted in our convent.

This will show you what a mother God has given you, skilled even in such vanities as this ! Still, they say that sometimes the game is lawful, and how well it would be for us to play it, and if we practised it often, how quickly we should checkmate this divine King so that He neither could, nor would, move out of our check!

The Queen is His strongest opponent in the game, and all the other pieces help her. No queen can defeat Him so soon as can humility.’ It drew Him from heaven into the Virgin’s womb, and with it we can draw Him by a single hair into our souls. And doubtless, the greater our humility, the more entirely shall we possess Him, and the weaker it is, the more reluctantly will He dwell within us.

For I do not and I cannot understand how humility can exist without love, or love without humility, nor can either of these virtues be held in their perfection without great detachment from all created things.

Perhaps you ask me, my daughters, why I speak to you of these virtues: they are taught in plenty of books and you only wish me to write about contemplation. If you had asked me about meditation, I could have instructed you, and I advise every one to practice it even though they do not possess the virtues, for this is the first step to obtain them all: it is most essential for all Christians to begin this practice. No one, however desperate his case may be, ought to neglect it if God incites him to make use of it. I have written this elsewhere, as have other people who understand the subject, which, as God knows, I certainly do not.

Contemplation, however, is quite another thing, daughters. We fall into a mistake on this point, so that if any one thinks about his sins every day for a certain time (as he is bound to do if he is a Christian in anything but name), we at once call him a great contemplative, and expect him to possess the sublime virtues proper to such a state: he even thinks so himself; but he is quite wrong. He has not yet learnt how to ‘place the board,’ but thinks he can effect checkmate simply by knowing the names of the pieces—in this he is deceived; this King will not let Himself be taken except by one who is entirely given up to Him.

Thanks to Idle Speculations for posting this passage.

Summary

In the end, we’re still left with few facts and no current patron saint of gamers. However, I think St. Cajetan fills the bill pretty well. He has some connection with gambling, which can be an element of gaming. But he also has connections with banking, which is simulated in many games. He used his wealth to help others, and had a deep sense of compassion. He fought the clerical corruption of his time by being a living example of Christian charity and care for the poor, and seems to have have been an all-around good guy.

So, in the absence of another viable candidate, I’d like to nominate St. Cajetan as Patron Saint of Gamers. However, please continue to add new suggestions and I will update the piece.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Jon Zimmer

    “He reasoned that, since his superiors gave him permission to play the game, and he had no other pressing duties, clearly, this is what God wanted him to do. So, in his final hour, he would finish the game!”

    I’ve got to give this one to St. Al (as we followers of the International Jesuit Conspiracy (TM) call him. This was a young man who actually had to learn not to be so much of an ascetic and to have a bit of fun. Also, he died while ministering to victims of bubonic plague in Rome… sounds like the sort of guy you’d want to have in your party as the cleric/medic. You know he’d come through.

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  • siralacron

    I would say St. Isidore of Seville. He is already the patron saint of computer/internet users. Most games now-a-days go through the internet in one way or another. And since games come in consoles (technically speaking a computer) and PC version I’d have to lean with St. Isidore of Seville.

  • http://www.netministries.org/see/ch05703 Fr Bill

    The patron saint of gamers would be someone who has spare time on his hands and who has never heard of WORKING toward salvation.

  • Phillip

    Last time I heard something like this, it was a joke when someone called Leeroy Jenkins the internet patron saint of poor planning.

  • GarlicClove

    Would that make St. Balthazar the patron saint of people who role Mage?

  • David

    If you will excuse something of tangent from this interesting post, which one do you take to be St. Balthasar, and why? I am trying to research black saints (or saints – sometimes – depicted as black) in connection with St. Nicholas’s black helper(s) in Dutch popular cultural tradition – who eventually get(s) named ‘Black Pete’ (‘Zwarte Piet’) – which becomes both a proper and a generic name. Perhaps quite coincidentally (I have not yet tried to look into its history), the children’s card game with the odd card in English traditionally called ‘Old Maid’ is in Dutch also called ‘Zwarte Piet’ (the odd card depicts him, but not, I think, usually as St. Nicholas’s helper!). This has given rise to a common Dutch expression for shoving reesponsibility or blame off onto someone.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Typically, in art, Balthasar represents Africa, Caspar is Asia, and Melchior is Europe.

  • Spencerian

    I’d vote for St. George.

    He’s got the armor and incredible gear. He has a paladin cause. Most importantly, he’s done what very few game characters can do without some form of cheat: He killed a dragon all by himself.

  • Doug

    … and this is important to the work of a Christian how?
    Mt 7:21 ff; 28:19,20; 24:14

  • RichardC

    As I life long chess player, I cry out: “St. Aloysius Gonzaga pray for me!”

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Get over yourself. The greatest saints are people who are full of joy and love for their fellow man, not pinched scolds self-righteously flinging proof-texts at their fellow Christians.

  • StubbleSpark

    Blessed Miguel Pro, S.J. Prankster and master of disguise, he fought against the monolithic anti-Catholicism in Mexico and helped to create the Catholic underground which to me sounds a lot like the type of tasks and tactics required of gamers these days. What is more, he was shot in an execution lineup but did not die until a soldier had to put him out of his misery at point-blank range.

    Clearly, he had picked up a medpack or 1up.

  • V

    “Gaming” encompasses so many different aims and activities that it seems to me that it should be divided up. St. George for D&D and other fantasy games, St. Al for rules lawyers, and mechanics-heavy or table top games, St.Genesius (patron of actors) for Indie games or story heavy games, St. Maurice for miniatures gamers (patron of armies) and maybe St. Dymphna or Padre Pio for GMs. :)St. Francis de Sales (authors) to watch over game-prep. AFAIK, gamers need all the help we can get!

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    Another Good Topic for us

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  • Caine Pope

    Fr. Bill and some others raise an interesting point. While this may seem like leisure activities, which it is for the most part, it also raises the notion that as a Catholic, one can still practice their faith while doing it, to include evangelizing at times, in a simulated environment with other gamers. It’s another medium in which to bring Christ to other people. Plus, I think all of you have it wrong. I’m pretty sure the patron saint of gamers would be Don Bosco.

  • Stromboli

    My chips are on a Franciscan, almost any Franciscan.


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