For most of my homemaking life, Lent has been a time to figure out how many variations on tuna casserole I can come up with to get us through the season’s days of fast and abstinence. More recently, though, we’ve been inspired by the example of other Catholics to observe meatless Fridays year-round.
Along with many other Catholics, my husband and I long restricted our abstinence from meat to Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. Somehow, No. 1438 in the Catechism had escaped our notice. It says that each Friday is a day of penance in memory of the death of the Lord and a time for “voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving.”
After 1966, when Friday abstinence from meat was made optional, we gradually slipped into eating meat on Fridays, not realizing we had lost a valuable spiritual discipline in the process. The Catechism refers to this when it says days of fasting and abstinence “prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (No. 2043).
Along with spiritual discipline, we also lost part of our identity as Catholics when we started eating meat on Fridays. At one time, we were marked as Catholics by what we ordered in a restaurant, packed in our lunches or served in our homes on Friday. The Friday fish fry in the church basement and specials in local eateries aided us in our observance and sent a signal to the rest of the community. It was a small thing, to be sure, but it gave us a sense of identity much as not eating pork set a Jewish person apart.
True, the practice could generate moments of discomfort, but it also gave us occasions to say, “I’m Catholic,” leading to opportunities to witness our faith. Most importantly, of course, Friday abstinence reminded us of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and gave us a means of expressing our gratitude for that sacrifice by giving up something for him.
Today, there is nothing to stop us from restoring year-round meatless Fridays and encouraging others to do the same. Many already do this quietly and without fanfare, but their example is powerful. We learned of one couple’s practice through a dinner invitation on a Friday when they said simply, “We’ll be having fish.”
Another couple revealed their habit of Friday abstinence as we were making plans to meet at a Chinese buffet restaurant, where the soups are meat-based and many of the dishes we tend to choose contain meat. “Let’s not make it Friday since we don’t eat meat that day,” the husband said.
Meatless Fridays at our house have been an adjustment. It takes creativity to come up with meatless dishes, especially in the heat of the summer when the oven is off-limits for that other Lenten standby, macaroni and cheese.
One place to look for ideas is our local Eastern Orthodox church, whose members abstain from meat as well as dairy products during what they call Great Lent. We’ve found that many of their churches publish cookbooks overflowing with creative alternatives to meat dishes.
The point for Catholics is that, in giving up meat, or denying ourselves in some other way — not just during Lent but every Friday, all year — we agree to inconvenience ourselves just a little in the interest of remembering the one who suffered much worse pains for our sake.
Judy Roberts writes from