They say idle hands are the devil's tools. But this Lenten season, it might actually be texting fingers doing the dirty work. That's what Roman Catholic bishops have told their faithful, urging them to give up technology such as iPods and text messaging until Easter.
Catholic groups in Italy's Modena and southern Bari regions are calling for a ban on text messaging every Friday during Lent, which is the period between Ash Wednesday and the day before Easter. The Modena diocese hopes the texting ban will draw attention to the conflict in Congo, which it says is fueled by a struggle over mines that supply minerals used to make cell phones.
Lent is about becoming more aware of God and who you truly are, said James Heft, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California and president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. For some people, that might mean giving up things they are addicted to, while for others, it means engaging more with friends and family. And for some, it might mean doing away with distractions such as Twitter, he said.
"These are all things that can be tools, but they can be addictions," he said of technology. "They can contribute to an inability to silence the self."
What people give up for Lent often reflects the times, Heft said. In the 1950s, his family gave up television and popcorn. Now, there are dozens of Facebook groups on giving up the social networking site for Lent. Some members have already failed.
Spencer Ernst and Daryl Kirkland-Morgan are two MU students participating in a technology fast for Lent this year. They are giving up Facebook.
Although Kirkland-Morgan is not Catholic, she said. "The reason I stay off is because I'm doing it for God; it's a big sacrifice because I normally get on it like five or six times a day."
Kirkland-Morgan added: "Knowing that I'm doing it for God makes me stay strong. It shows that I have meaning in what I am doing."
Giving up technology would be an impossible task for many, but perhaps the real question is, "What would Jesus do?"
Ernst said the past two weeks have been tough. “Yes, it is a sacrifice and a challenge, but it’s not impossible. My goal is to get back in the Bible and make more God time,” he said.
Even though he has only used Facebook for a year, Ernst admits to spending at least an hour and a half every day talking to friends over Facebook.
Some Catholics believe God would want them to stay in touch in a connected world.
"Why would people not want God to live with the times?" said Silvia Beltramini, a Catholic school graduate who is an event designer living in downtown Los Angeles. Lent, she said, is about personal growth, which doesn't always mean taking away something important. She's meditating once a day, for instance.
This decree to live without technology, she said, "sounds like something a nun would say."
Although Kirkland-Morgan and Ernst do not see fasting from Facebook as withdrawing from today's society, they both agree that this is a chance to become a stronger believer and that offers them the advantage of bettering their relationship with God.
“I use Facebook on a regular basis to communicate with friends, and by giving it up, I can make myself talk to people in person rather than sitting in my cubicle on the Internet," Ernst said.
"It's a test of self-discipline," Kirkland-Morgan said of the experience. "Not having Facebook makes your life slow down and keeps your focus on classwork and school."
Other suggestions from Catholic bishops included giving up TV and riding bicycles instead of driving cars.
Missourian reporter Temia Griffin contributed to this report.