Christians innovate new fasts, sacrifices for Lent

Social media, cars and air conditioning are opted against this Lent season in Kerala
Christians innovate new fasts, sacrifices for Lent

An Indian Catholic priest delivers his sermon during Mass at Sister Alphonsa's Church in the southern Indian state of Kerala, in this file photo. Christians in  Kerala state are logging off social media, leaving cars at home and using less electricity and plastic during Lent. (Photo by Raveendran/AFP)

Catholics along with some from Orthodox and Protestant Christians in the southern Indian Kerala state are adding "carbon" and "cyber fasts" to traditional privations during Lent.

Logging off social media, leaving cars at home and using less electricity and plastic are all new types of fasting encouraged by Christians for the annual period of prayer and abstention in preparation for Easter.

Traditionally, Eastern rite Christians in the state, who trace their faith back to St. Thomas the Apostle who is believed to have visited India and founded their church, practice Lent for 50 days following a strict vegetarian diet avoiding even milk and eggs.

The Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, one of the seven branches of the St. Thomas Christians, were the first to use Lent as a tool to protect the environment. Its leaders in 2009 began urging their 1 million-strong congregation to observe a "carbon fast" during Lent by switching off air-conditioners, avoiding the use of plastic bags and leaving cars at home.

More Christians followed suit. The latest to emulate the example is the Church of South India, a union of Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Some 405 churches in its Kerala Diocese have also introduced a carbon fast this year.

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Sabu K. Cherian, treasurer of the diocese, told that the appeal made by Bishop Thomas K. Ommen of Madhya Kerala Diocese inspired Christians all over the state.

"The members reduced their use of electricity and motor vehicles. Pastors have been constantly reminding them about the carbon fast during Lent and telling them that it is the poor who suffer the degraded environment the most," Sabu said.

The Malankara Orthodox Church, the second-largest faction of the St. Thomas Christians, called for a vehicle fast this year.

"We have sought to create an awareness of global warming by appealing to the faithful to avoid vehicles on March 26. Members in all 1,600 churches in Kerala and outside have been asked to come to Sunday service on foot or by bicycle," said P. C. Alias, spokesperson of the church.

The 30 dioceses of the church have also been trying to create awareness around the misuse of social media with a "cyber fast." This year the church has urged its members not to use cellphones, internet or television on Good Friday. 

"Though cyber tools ensure effective communication, excessive and uncontrolled use of them have broken down communication between family members; mouths are shut when the devices are on. Our effort is to discourage the faithful from becoming addicted to these new tools,'' Alias said.

"We normally observe Lent by avoiding non-vegetarian food and fasting during Good Friday. This is not enough when technological advancements are posing grave threats to the family and faith. We have called for the cyber fast to make our faithful aware of the threat," Alias said.

Eastern Catholic churches are also aware of the damage done by social media addiction but they have not made any official directives to the faithful, said Father Paul Thelekat of the Syro-Malabar Church.

He told the that many young people in his own church have spontaneously abstained from social media as part of Lent. "We encourage such voluntary actions," he said.

Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, told that it would be a mistake to conclude that these new fasts are pushing aside more traditional observations.

"We have a very strong tradition. We know that many young people are following lent strictly," he said.

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