FRESNO, Calif. — Once upon a time, people gave up food for Lent, usually something they needed to cut back on like sweets.
These days, people are giving up Facebook.
It makes sense, says Lisa Hendey, webmaster at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, Fresno, Calif.'s largest Roman Catholic congregation.
"In the past, it might have been giving up the extras, like chocolate or TV, but Facebook has become such a big part of people's daily lives they're contemplating giving it up, praying about it and discussing it."
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Hendey, who also has her own Web site that appeals to Catholic moms and provides links to her Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter pages, says she thought about giving up social media but wasn't ready. "But I will cut back on my use of it, especially Sundays, during the season of Lent."
Lent is the 40 days, exclusive of Sundays, from Ash Wednesday to Easter, observed by some Christians with fasting, penitence, prayer and self-denial. The aim is to make sacrifices as they spiritually prepare for Easter, moving closer to God. Ash Wednesday was this week; Easter is April 24.
Deciding what to give up isn't an easy choice. Pastors suggest people consider what's valuable to them, and that includes their time.
Dan Hues, associate pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fresno, says many people question the amount of time they spend on Facebook.
It's almost compulsive," he says. "That's why it makes sense to give it up for Lent.
"The whole point of Lent is a time at getting closer to God. The point is to leave selfish behavior behind you, to put off the 'self.' Facebook is almost a shrine to yourself, with pictures, status updates, seeing if people 'like' you. It's all about you."
Facebook has more than 500 million active users; about 50 percent log in any given day. People spend more than 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook.
Robin Goldbeck, a self-employed architect and member of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, has given up Facebook for Lent.
She uses the Internet all the time at her office, researching manufacturers' Web sites for specifications related to her work. She decided to go on Facebook to relax in the evenings.
Reading friends' posts about themselves and their children started out as a "purely social" thing, she says. "It's like Christmas cards all day long."
Evenings weren't enough after a while. "The first thing in the morning, I wanted to see what happened overnight," she says.
Then, she checked during the middle of work projects: "I'd say, "I'll just check Facebook right now."
Goldbeck says she knew she was overdoing it.
"I'm ready for a break," she says. "I want to take stock of what Facebook is or isn't contributing overall."
Roy Guzman, director of English Youth Ministry at St. John's Cathedral in Fresno, says it is important that parishioners pick something they can give up that's keeping them from getting closer to God.
Whatever it is, Guzman advises them to find time "to help another human being in God's name."
Ramiro Luevano Jr., a student at Fresno City College and member of St. John's Cathedral, understands that sentiment. He was spending too much time on Facebook, so he gave it up for Lent last year.
He says he learned a lot from the experience.
"You have so much more time," he says. "I went out for runs; I exercised more. I spent more time with my family. I had more time to reflect on life. Instead of writing my friends on Facebook, I went to be with them.
"If you think about it, you don't need it. Ten years ago, nobody knew about Facebook."