Holy Week 2015: Hearing confessions in the Silicon belly of the high-tech beast

It would be hard to live closer to the belly of the high-tech beast than Menlo Park in Northern California's Silicon Valley.

Close to Stanford University? Check. A highway exchange or two from the Apple mother ship? Check. Not that far from Googleplex? Check. It's the kind of home base from which an Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") priest -- with the organization's emphasis on leadership among laypeople as well as clergy -- can lecture, as Father C. John McCloskey recently quipped, to "300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe."

It's also an interesting place to hear lots of confessions as Catholics near the end of Lent and prepare for Holy Week and then Easter, which is April 5th this year for Western churches. Eastern Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar and will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 12th.

"One thing we stress during Lent is a sense of detachment from the things of this world," said McCloskey, an apologist and evangelist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before this West Coast move. "We even do this with good things, if they've become temptations. It can be a kind of food or it can be alcohol. It can be other good things, like running and being obsessed with your health. …

"But if you can't be happy living without something, then that tells you something. It tells you that this thing is using you, rather than you using it."

But what if this good thing is woven into most of the details of daily life? In this case, McCloskey is talking about his trusty Apple laptop and iPhone. After all there is a smartphone app he often uses to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and his computer is crucial to his writing and "distance learning" teaching. And how big is that Twitter account -- @Pontifex -- used by Pope Francis? The English tweets alone currently reach 5,747,028.

Yet when hearing confessions, the priest said he is becoming increasingly aware of how -- for many people -- these doors into cyberspace also serve as links to pornography, violent video games that are truly addictive, social-media sites that provide gossip more than useful information and wave after wave of emails that seem to bury exhausted users in busywork.

Perhaps this is why, in this year's OpenBible.info study of what Twitter users planned to give up for Lent, the Top 30 items included Twitter itself at No. 3, as well as "social networking," "Facebook," "Netflix" and "Instagram." Apparently, no one thought it was possible to give up email.

Church leaders must wrestle with these technological ties that bind or they are not being honest about the real lives of real people, stressed McCloskey. Thus, in an online "The Catholic Thing" commentary and in a telephone interview, he offered suggestions to help believers evaluate their high-tech lives. Priests may want to ponder these issues in sermons, he said. The list included:

* First, there are issues of time, he said. "On average, how much time you spend online and watching television?" How much money is linked to the use of technology?

* How much time daily do people spend with family members? "Is it more or less," he asked, "than the time you spend online?

* Do believers spend more time consuming entertainment in a typical day -- or even on Sundays -- than in Mass, Bible readings or prayers? What is the ratio?

* How do these online activities compare with the time and money spent helping the poor?

* Could your family exist with one television, which would require family members to discuss what programs they will share and when?

* Can people even imagine going on a completely silent spiritual retreat, with no computers and no smartphones?

McCloskey said that when he meets with students who are serious Catholics, most have never even contemplated whether their omnipresent high-tech tools are shaping their souls.

"Let me stress that many of the things we do online are very good and that technology is a good gift, when used in the right way," he said. "But we only have so much time in this life. At the very least, we have to ask whether -- with all of this technology -- we have much time left for a deeper life, a life that includes room for contemplation."