Thou shalt not text, nor listen to thy iPod: Bishops set new rules for Lent

Catholic Church offers modern alternatives to age-old tradition of fasting

Chocolate, cigarettes and alcohol may be the predictable vices to give up for the 40 days of Lent but Italians are being urged to abstain from more contemporary pleasures, like texting, Facebook and iPods.

The Bishop of Modena, in northern Italy, has called on young Italians to give up on Fridays their addiction to sending text messages, in the run-up to Easter Sunday. Archbishop Benito Cocchi said that this would help them to "cleanse themselves from the virtual world and get back into touch with themselves".

The average Italian sends 50 texts a month, the second highest rate in Europe, behind the UK.

The bishops of Pesaro, on the Adriatic, and of Bari, in the south, have also picked up on the idea of a "text message fast" and more bishops could follow suit.

In the Diocese of Trento, in the foothills of the Alps, Archbishop Luigi Bressan has set out a type of calender of abstinence for his parishioners, with each Sunday of Lent dedicated to a different sacrifice.

He has called on Catholics to abstain from using a car, from logging into Facebook, from listening to music on MP3 players, and from playing computer games. He has also suggested that people use Lent to embrace recycling and he called for "abstinence from egocentricity".

In Venice, the bishop has suggested giving up mineral water and drinking only tap water during Lent.

In Rivoli, also in northern Italy, a parish priest has issued his catechism students with a black cloth to be draped over the family TV to encourage them to abstain from watching it, as a "penitence".

It is not known if he also instructed his students on how to deal with any family members who may wish to see the local football team play or keep up with their favourite soaps.

Lent, instituted by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and which for most Christian congregations runs from Ash Wednesday to Easter, commemorates the 40 days that Jesus is said to have spent fasting in the desert and rejecting the temptations of Satan before beginning his ministry.

The bishops are encouraging their parishioners to take up new forms of abstinence after the Pope emphasised in his Ash Wednesday address the importance of Lent as a spiritual build-up to Easter and praised the age-old Christian practice of fasting.

In modern practice, fasting is extremely mild, and generally consists of not eating meat on Fridays. But a minority limit themselves to one meal a day and other forms of self-denial.

Father Gianni Fazzini, the director of the Venice diocese's "pastoral office for lifestyle", suggested that substituting meat with fish was no longer a relevant form of self denial that could make us better people.

The new concept of fasting, he said, could be "a reaction to the economic crisis; modifying our choices as consumers can be our response to the economic disaster".

In Rome, an official of the schools department has already removed meat from school lunches on Fridays during Lent. The move has sparked protests, not for nutritional but for political reasons, since it is seen as a religious interference in public life.

One reader of the daily newspaper La Repubblica wrote in, suggesting that for Lent, "Italy's Catholic institutions should renounce interfering in Italian politics".