Growing up, I was regularly told that we were to abstain from meat on Fridays. So, when I moved to America a few years ago, I was surprised to hear many people tell me there was no longer a need for us to observe ‘meatless’ Fridays, as the Church had done away with them.
Turns out there is a bit of truth and error with both positions.
Contrary to a view that’s widely held by Catholics, especially in the West, Fridays throughout the year are still meant to be observed as days of penance (unless a particular Friday is celebrated as a liturgical solemnity).
In 1966, Pope Paul VI issued a decree titled ‘Paenitemini’, which broadened the Church’s approach to the observance of fasting and abstinence during the year. Good Friday and Ash Wednesday continued to be days of fasting and abstinence throughout the Church. The penitential character of Lent was also maintained. And most of us are aware of this and accept it. However, where misinformation and misunderstanding has crept in has been concerning Fridays outside of Lent.
When Pope Paul VI wrote Paenitemini, he left it to each country’s bishops to decide how the penitential spirit of Fridays was to be kept, though nothing in his decree gave any impression that he had revoked the custom of penance on that day. Each country’s conference of bishops was allowed to decide a suitable way to observe Fridays in a penitential way within their countries, or to suggest how people could appropriately substitute abstinence with other forms of penance, especially through works of charity and piety. Most countries’ bishops, including USA, the Philippines, Canada, India, England and Wales, etc., have outlined how Catholics in their respective countries are to mark Fridays (more on that below).
The practice of fasting/abstinence is a form of voluntary self-denial that helps us to discipline ourselves and to live in union with Christ, who sacrificed himself for us. As the US bishops put it, “Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with him.”
A part of the reason that the Church gave another look at the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays was to take into account the changing economic and social circumstances in different parts of the world. A blanket universal norm of abstinence from meat was no longer seen as necessarily the most useful or effective means of practicing penance, especially in some countries, where an act of charity or piety would perhaps be more pleasing to God. Moreover, in many cases, abstaining from meat is no longer penitential for some individuals, while the voluntary self-denial of other things or the performance of charitable/pious works could be more of a sacrifice.
Yet, for whatever reason, the Church’s attempt to broaden our outlook to traditionally ‘meatless’ Fridays, has been modified by many of us into something it is not. On one extreme, are those of us who have put any penitential practice on Fridays behind us, believing that this obligation has been relegated only to Fridays in Lent. On the other extreme, are those who still observe ‘meatless’ Fridays, but are quite alright with (over-)feasting at an all-you-can-eat sushi place on a Friday, since that still technically meets the obligation of going ‘meatless’. Then there are folks who take a median position on this issue, merely carrying out some act of charity, piety or penance, because it is a ‘rule’ of the Church.
In different ways, all three attitudes seem to miss the point. The amazing thing about treating each Friday during the year as a day of penance, is that it helps us on a regular basis, to prepare for each following Sunday, when we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. In the words of the Canadian bishops, we share in the Lord’s cross on each Friday through our acts of penance, joining in his death to sin and evil, and then on each following Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death, and our eventual victory with him.
The exact reason for the practice of abstaining particularly from meat on Fridays is not known, but it’s an ancient tradition in the Church, dating as far back as the first century A.D. Thus, in accord with the Church’s ancient practice of abstaining from meat, I personally do believe there is a certain value in maintaining this custom. It’s worth noting that while the US bishops allow American Catholics to substitute going ‘meatless’ with an act of charity or piety, they explicitly place a certain primacy in abstinence from meat on Fridays during the year. The bishops from England and Wales went a step further a few years ago. In 2011, they brought back the practice of abstinence from meat on all Fridays in the year, as they believed it was important that all the faithful be united in a common, identifiable act of Friday penance.
I don’t mean to place a dampener on anybody’s Easter joy penning this article right after Easter, but I think it’s important we grasp the obligation that the Church calls us to more fully. The Catechism, for instance, states that each Friday stands as an intense moment of the Church’s penitential practice in memory of the death of the Lord (CCC 1438). It’s not about seeing it as a ‘rule’. Rather, by observing some form of fasting, or abstinence, or adding extra prayer to our day, or some intentional act of charity/piety in our lives every Friday, we consequently enhance the resurrection joy of each Sunday that follows.
The Church does not try to lay burdens on us by obliging us to observe penance on Fridays. But through this requirement, we are able to better follow Jesus’ example. By reflecting on his passion and death through our penances each Friday, and then joining him in the resurrection on every Sunday, we don’t restrict our lived faith to only certain parts of the year. Instead, we live in the light of the Paschal mystery – Jesus’ death and resurrection – throughout the year.
What the Catholic bishops of some countries have specifically mandated:
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