Lent has been over for quite a while now. We are at the tail end of the Easter season, 50 days of rejoicing in the resurrection until Pentecost Sunday (that's next Sunday, June 8). The days of fasting are a memory; there's no more need to forego that Big Mac on Friday.
Or is there?
For years the popular perception has been that year-round, meatless Fridays are a thing of the past — a cultural artifact gathering dust in the Museum of Catholic Nostalgia, along with Communion rails and Monday-night novenas.
Yet a glance at canon law reveals that this isn't necessarily so. Canon 1250 states: “The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year (emphasis added) and the season of Lent.”
Canon 1251 adds: “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the episcopal conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.”
The reasoning seems to be that, in countries where meat is not a regular dietary feature, some other food should be given up instead. Since this is not the case in the United States, what exactly happened to our meatless-Friday requirement?
Canon 1253 provides an exception to the rule — and, perhaps, an explanation for the cultural shift: “The episcopal conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.”
Remembrance of the Passion
In November 1966, the U.S. bishops did just that. The bishops' conference's “Complementary Norms on Penance and Abstinence” released American Catholics from a strict obligation under pain of sin to abstain from meat on Fridays outside of Lent.
But the same document insisted that Friday was to remain a special day of penance throughout the year: “Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.”
The bishops went on to say that, among these now freely chosen penitential practices, “we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”
This change came in the wake of Vatican II, a time when adjustments in liturgical and disciplinary law, not to mention theological dissent and some unapproved innovations, were causing a stir among the faithful and in the media. It seems that the Friday-abstinence story was cast by reporters primarily in terms of “no more going to hell for eating a hamburger on Friday” rather than a call to continue the tradition of Friday penance, embraced out of love, and with leeway for more variety.
Perhaps the nuances and distinctions were preached in pulpits at the time, but many Catholics did not follow through. Time went on, two new generations have matured and the notion of Friday abstinence or penance has largely disappeared from many Catholics' conscience.
Recently, there seems to be the beginning of an upswing in the year-round Friday observance. With the growth of EWTN, local Catholic radio stations and other high-fidelity Catholic media, the teaching is receiving more publicity. In addition, many lay movements have made their members aware of the importance of maintaining Friday as a day of penance.
Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1970s, Marisa Cordero had never heard that abstinence or penance was recommended for non-Lenten Fridays. She was surprised 10 years ago when an American teacher of natural family planning told her Friday penance is still in force.
After moving to the United States, she and her family became involved with a prayer group whose members, by and large, did practice Friday abstinence from meat — often adding penances or prayers. “I thought at first that this was just some local custom for this part of the country,” she says. The Cordero family now also observes meatless Fridays.
Linda Langlitz of Cincinnati remembers sermons explaining the change when she was a teen-ager. “My understanding was that we could choose some other penance, but somehow I either wasn't told, or didn't grasp, that Friday was still the day for it,” she recalls. “My impression was that we were being told that we should, in general, practice penance regularly, but at times of our own choosing. So for years I did not particularly observe Friday but gave things up occasionally, not systematically.”
Then, some years ago, her husband read what the teaching actually was. “Since then, we do give up meat on Friday,” says Langlitz. “I also give up chocolate, which for me is even more effective, since I love it so much more than meat.”
Therese Bower's family stopped going meatless in the '60s, when she was in grade school, but she does not recall receiving any explanation for the change. Years later, her husband converted to the Catholic faith. He enjoyed studying the faith in his spare time.
“At some point, Keith and I realized that Friday penance was not optional, not abolished,” says Bower. “We now do meatless Fridays, except for the rare occasion when it is tremendously inconvenient. Then instead, we make a point of getting to noon Mass or praying the chaplet.”
“I find that forgoing meat is a good sacrifice, not so much because I like meat,” adds Bower, “but because of the bother of having to plan what to cook. You know, four o'clock rolls around and you say ‘Whoops! It's Friday!’ and you have to figure out what to eat. It often ends up being something goofy, like devilled eggs and toast, so the kids have to put up with that for their penance.”
Those who return to a more faithful practice of Friday penance report that it has proved a valuable source of grace, increasing their self-discipline and reinforcing their Catholic identity.
“When the change first came, I thought to myself, ‘At last they're treating us like adults,’” says Mary Corey of Delhi, Ohio. “But, as the years went by, I also saw the need for structure.”
Father Ed Gearhart, a pastor and canon lawyer in the Diocese of Cincinnati, agrees that the tradition of year-round Friday penance isn't as clearly or universally taught as the regulations for Lenten Fridays are. He makes a point of reminding his parishioners now and then and says he believes the practice is reviving.
“More catechesis would be helpful,” says the priest. “But I do see a trend of more and more people [abstaining]. We seem to be in a time of transition on this.”
Daria Sockey writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.