Catholics now have a sure-fire way to know when their religious fervor needs some rekindling.
A new iPhone application gaining popularity across the country tracks users' religious activity -- everything from reading Scriptures to posting prayers -- and reflects it in the flame of a virtual candle tied to the app that grows larger and brighter with every completed task. Stray from the path and the flame burns out -- only to be rekindled if another user physically "bumps" mobile devices with the holder of the extinguished flame.
The free app called Ignio -- "ignite" in Latin -- was released last month as an innovative way for Catholics to encourage young people to be more active followers.
Although religious applications for mobile devices have been around for a while -- with everything from digital compasses that point Muslims in the direction of Mecca to daily inspirational text messages for a variety of faiths -- Ignio creators boast their app is the only one that helps Catholics live, share and track their faith.
"We're lighting a candle of hope," said Andres Ruzo, a Dallas businessman and Roman Catholic who helped create Ignio.
The 50-year-old CEO of Link America Inc., energized by a trip to the Vatican with a group of businessmen last year, reached out to some savvy, young designers and developers in Dallas to create the app.
"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness," Ruzo said, explaining that Ignio is sort of a play on that proverb since Christians believe Jesus Christ is the "light of the world."
After downloading the app, Ignio appears on the cell phone screen as an unlit candle. Ignio users can choose candles with images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St. Francis or other Catholic symbols.
To spark the candle's wick, the user must physically "bump" or repeatedly tap iPhones with a current Ignio user.
The flame stays lit as long as one participates in a variety of spiritual activities, such as posting prayers on Ignio, commenting on friends' prayer requests, using the app to find a nearby church or just to "check-in" to let friends know you are at church or were there that week. Ignio also keeps track of how often one reads the prescribed daily Scriptures and verses found on the app.
But one must use Ignio at least once within a two-week period or the flame dies.
"It's so simple," Ruzo said. "The more you pray with others the bigger and brighter your candle glows."
While Facebook users with hundreds of virtual friends appear popular, Ignio intentionally caps the friendship circle to 12 -- a limit Ruzo said was inspired by the number of Jesus' disciples.
Transparency and accountability are also more likely to occur in such small groups, organizers say.
"That's the beauty of Ignio. It forms community, a small community," said Roberto S. Skertchly, 60, who is part of WeDoBelieve, the non-profit foundation created to underwrite the app and brainstorm more faith projects.
The foundation has invested close to $60,000 in Ignio and plans to raise another $100,000 to $120,000 to develop the Android version, an Internet site, and support the operations of the Ignio back-bone servers, Skertchly said.
The developers continue to refine and tweak the app to make it more user-friendly. The next version, scheduled for release Wednesday, adds notifications, a broader church selection list and will fix prematurely extinguishing flames.
Skertchly estimates the app has roughly 6,000 to 8,000 users. But the number could grow significantly when Ignio is introduced Thursday at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis, Ind., where more than 25,000 high school students are expected to attend.
"I'm surprised by how this has spread to different corners of the U.S. already, and we haven't even pushed it really," said Flip Caderao, 28, an Ignio designer who noted that they're getting a slew of email from users, a mix of questions, encouragement and praise. "It's frightening but awesome as well."
Bishop Kevin J. Farrell, who leads the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, formally blessed the launch of Ignio in its beta form during a special ceremony this summer at the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Dallas.
The bishop said he's pleased people are "using technology to evangelize," a concept Pope Benedict XVI has recently embraced as a way to grow the faith.
The app has become a popular item at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Pilot Point in North Texas, where teens in a youth ministry use Ignio to stay together and pray for each other during the school day, sharing personal situations they might not want to broadcast on Facebook.
"You get that interaction right from the get go," said Jason Spoolstra, the youth minister at the church in Denton County. "That's a lot of fun."
Caderao said the app is out-of-character for a faith that is usually "a few steps behind" in finding innovative ways to reach out to young people.
"Being a Catholic, it's pretty awesome to have something cool that's Catholic; that other churches will say, `Hey, we could use that, too,"' Caderao said. "That usually doesn't happen."