What to Give Up for Lent 2021: Minimize Media to Maximize the Word

EDITORIAL: These 40 days are an opportunity to minimize the deluge of excessive information in our lives and to replace it with prayer, silence, Scripture, service and meaningful conversation with others.

A woman peruses her phone while her Rosary sits on the table.
A woman peruses her phone while her Rosary sits on the table. (photo: Josh Applegate / Shutterstock)

Catholics can surely be forgiven if the prospect of taking on voluntary sacrifices during this year’s Lenten season seems considerably more daunting than usual. The last 12 months have seemed, for many, like an interminable “Long Lent.”

For the entire period, we have been enduring the collective hardships imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Socially distanced from each other and sometimes locked down almost entirely, we have taken refuge in our homes only to be barraged there by the unremitting flow of disturbing information about the pandemic and about the political and social divisions that came into view before and after the fraught 2020 election — all delivered to us 24/7 via the wonders of modern electronic media.

So here’s a proposal: Why not fast this year from this epic flood of information, by turning off our computers, cellphones, televisions and other electronic devices except when their use is truly necessary?

Such a fast is not a novel idea, of course. Detaching from our electronics has been recommended by many spiritual guides over the course of the last century, ever since modern media began to assume their dominant role. 

In February 1996, for example, Pope St. John Paul II advised Catholics to turn off their TVs and talk with each other instead during that year’s Lent. “In many families the television seems to substitute, rather than facilitate, dialogue among people,” he noted. “A type of ‘fast’ also in this area could be healthy.” 

Similarly, Pope Francis discussed the perils of media overreliance in his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with trying to remain up to date with current events via the news media. (We appreciate that our readers rely on the Register to inform them with daily news and analysis as told through the lens of the Catholic faith.) Likewise, there isn’t anything wrong with watching quality movies and sports via the entertainment media and connecting with friends, family and other people via social media. 

Used in moderation and especially when used for the good of communion with one another, modern media can be a great benefit. Certainly, during the pandemic, the televising of Mass and other communal forms of prayer has aided prayer and helped maintain a connection with the Church for those who have not had access to the sacraments. Live two-way video communications have also helped keep family and friends connected when social isolation has taken a severe toll on individuals and communities.

Nevertheless, the three major spiritual practices of Lent can serve to assist us in cutting back (or refraining from altogether) for a period from attachments that, while not inherently evil, can sometimes distract us and deflect us from the central Christian goals of loving God and loving our neighbors. 

Almsgiving assists in detaching from money and the material things money can buy and turning our attention to assisting others in their needs; fasting assists us in detaching from food and other personal satisfactions and redirecting our hunger toward God and spiritual matters; and prayer assists us in detaching from recreation and other diversions and focusing on building our relationship with God.

A Lenten fast from electronic media will similarly help those of us who are suffering from an information overload to detach from that. And, honestly, that is most of us, as every ping or blinking light on our smartphones beckons us to fix our gaze downward on the screens. We aren’t suggesting a complete withdrawal; in terms of news media, for instance, half an hour a day keeping abreast of important matters on a quality website such as NCRegister.com could be well warranted even throughout Lent! (Or join Father Mike Schmitz online on his journey through his The Bible in a Year podcast.) But, as one of the Register’s contributors asked this week, “Do people in the U.S. really need to know the daily count of COVID cases in Thailand?”

Similarly, during this continuing period of social distancing, connections via social media or live video calls might be particularly necessary. But here, too, we can ask if our forays onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other such platforms are authentic and healthy connections with other human beings, drawing us toward communion and witnessing to Jesus Christ, or if they are instead a way to distract ourselves and separate ourselves unhealthily from others, or even tempting us to sin against charity and so harm our Christian witness.

On Ash Wednesday in 2020, Pope Francis warned about the way our communications, especially the internet, can be “polluted by too much verbal violence” and “offensive and harmful words.” 

“We are inundated with empty words, with advertisements, with subtle messages. We have become used to hearing everything about everyone, and we risk slipping into a worldliness that atrophies our hearts,” he said.

To counter that, he encouraged, “Lent is a time to disconnect from cellphones and connect to the Gospel.” He urged the use of fewer words, the taking in of greater silence and more direct communication with the Lord through prayer.

“It is the absence of words to make room for another Word, the Word of God.”

As Lent began last year, the Holy Father reminded us that the Church calls us every year during this liturgical season to open up more “room” in our lives for Jesus by minimizing the incessant worldly din that so often clutters our souls. That’s all the more necessary this year, given the singularly troublesome events of the last 12 months, combined with the unprecedented capacity of contemporary media to serve as a megaphone to amplify unnecessary distractions.

These 40 days are an opportunity to minimize the deluge of excessive information in our lives and to replace it with prayer, silence, Scripture, service and meaningful conversation with others. In doing so, we will be offering Jesus the room he needs to draw our gaze toward him, freeing us from attachments that deaden our souls and ultimately refreshing our own living witness to his Life, Death and Resurrection.