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Bishop Jaime Soto is the first leader of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento to use a laptop, browse the Internet on his cell phone and read a book on Kindle. He regularly e-mails his priests and reads religious blogs.
But starting today, the first day of Lent, Soto will begin a 40-day, virtual "fast." The bishop is calling on the area's 900,000 Catholics to join him in cutting back on their online connections.
"The computer, or the iPhone or Facebook, have become addictions for many people," Soto said. "During Lent we should look at everything we do and think: How can we exercise moderation?"
Lent is the season of reflection, repentance and spiritual discipline for Christians. The observance begins today, Ash Wednesday, and ends Easter Sunday.
This year, in addition to reminding Catholics to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent, Soto is asking followers to fast from "needless television, video games, Internet use and social entertainment," according to the 2010 Lenten Regulations and Admonitions. He is not seeking a ban – just restraint.
The rules were posted on the diocese's Web site last week.
The Catholic Church has embraced new technologies in recent years, with Pope Benedict XVI welcoming them as "a gift." Last month, the pope urged priests to use digital communication to preach the Gospel. The Vatican has a YouTube channel and a Facebook account. Several bishops blog.
In his two years as the spiritual leader of the diocese, Soto has urged the faithful to use technology. Most parishes have Web sites. Men training for the priesthood in the diocese now blog about their experiences at Santissimo Sacramento – "The Most Holy Sacrament."
"It demystifies the whole seminary process. … Some people are surprised that we blog; they think we live in a cave or something," said Brian Soliven, 29, a seminarian interning at St. Rose of Lima Church in Roseville. "The blog gives people a peek into our lives."
He said technology will play a vital role in his ministry. Nowadays, he said, the first impression most people have of a parish is not when they walk into a church. "Their first impression is the church's Web site."
While encouraging followers to use media to communicate their message, church leaders also have become increasingly aware that technology can be misused. The pope has warned against "obsessive" virtual socializing. For some, it has taken the place of human interaction, said Bishop Soto.
"People should become less plugged into their iPod and more plugged into the people around you," Soto said.
As she walked out of noon Mass at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Gloria Hernandez said she was glad to hear the bishop asking for moderation during Lent.
As the mother of three teenagers who are constantly texting their friends, she said she is not sure how they will react to the bishop's call. "Giving up meat for them is not a problem. It's probably easier than giving up their cell phones."
Soto, who carries a bag full of his latest technological gadgets with him when he travels, understands.
He calls his PDA "indispensable," and he signs onto his computer first thing every morning. But cutting back during Lent will give him time to reflect on how he is using technology to further his ministry and communicate God's message, he said.
"I want to have more time in prayer and not be distracted by what's in my inbox."