Q. I heard the pope asked people to give up cell phones and computer games for Lent. I guess I can understand the games, but cell phones seem important for communicating with other people. Why would he want us to sacrifice that?
A. Give up a cell phone for Lent? Actually I kind of like that idea! I remember when I first got a cell phone about 12 years ago. I had it for about a month and then got rid of it because I didn’t like being constantly available. But I did quickly realize that there were many pastoral benefits to this also. So after a few months I reactivated it and have had one ever since.
I would guess that even though most people would never leave home these days without their phone, many may find it somewhat freeing if they accidentally forgot it for a day. Sometimes, in the age of constant communication, we need a little break!
But to your question. I think you may be referring to some of the news articles that came out one year ago when the Holy Father gave an address for the “43rd World Communication Day.” In that message he said, “If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.”
Then, according to various news reports, in March, 2009, there were a number of bishops in Italy who encouraged people to give up texting, computers, social networking and the like for Lent so as to help people to “detox from the virtual world and get themselves back in touch with themselves.” This created a flurry of news reports with titles like, “Thou Shalt not Text Until Easter” and “Stop Texting for Lent.”
So what did the pope really say? His comments are very helpful to read in their entirety. He was speaking about the deep desire for friendship and communication that we all have. He also said in that message, “It is in and through our friendships that we grow and develop as humans. For this reason, true friendship has always been seen as one of the greatest goods any human person can experience. We should be careful, therefore, never to trivialize the concept or the experience of friendship. It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop on-line friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation.”
I think that this is a very important message for all of us as we continue in this technological age of social networking and communication. It’s true that most people these days rely upon their cell phone for important communication so giving them up may not be possible or helpful. And I don’t think this is what the pope was trying to say. Instead, he points out the great benefit of this new age of technology in that address. He acknowledges that the new forms of communication reveal our deep desire to be connected with one another. But he also points out the dangers of becoming too obsessed with these new technologies. Especially when they lead to the loss of face to face communication which can never be replaced with electronics.