Corned Beef Fast?

BOSTON — With March 17 falling on a Friday in Lent, can corned beef and cabbage make its way to the dinner plates of Catholics celebrating St. Patrick’s Day?

For many, the answer depends on location. While some dioceses grant dispensations from the Lenten obligation for abstinence from meat on Fridays in Lent for Catholics 14 years and older, others let the obligation stand.

In the Archdiocese of Boston, Catholics of any ethnicity might partake of the corned beef in good conscience, but not because 2000 census figures show 22.5% of Massachusetts residents claim Irish-American ancestry.

“Because St. Patrick is the patron saint of our archdiocese, we have removed the Lenten requirement for abstinence,” said Father Brian Mahoney, director of the Office of Worship for the archdiocese.

The decision reflects the nature of the relationship of the archdiocese with the saint, “not something we do normally,” he said. “Basically you should not be setting aside the Lenten celebration unless there is a particular good pastoral reason to do so.”

He pointed out that normally, on the Church calendar, St. Patrick is an optional memorial that doesn’t even have to be celebrated.

 “In our case it’s not an optional memorial,” Father Mahoney said, “but on the calendar of the Archdiocese of Boston it is raised to a feast day.”

Similarly, Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York, where St. Patrick is also the patron saint, will be dispensed from the obligation that day. “It’s a special feast for us,” said Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese. “This is celebrated as a feast day, not just for a particular national group. It’s under that basis that the dispensation is granted.”

The seat of the Archbishop of New York is St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue, the country’s most prominent celebration of that day, passes in front of the cathedral.

In Philadelphia, which has the second oldest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country, Cardinal Justin Rigali has granted a dispensation from the obligation to abstain from meat for all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said archdiocesan Office of Worship Director Father Gerald Carey.

“We did stipulate that anyone who wishes to take advantage of this dispensation is encouraged to perform some other work of piety and charity,” he added.

The archdiocese leaves the specific act or gesture up to the people themselves, reminding them it is a penitential season and Friday is a day of penance.


Father Carey, who won’t take advantage of the dispensation, suggested as substitute a next-day act of penance, a work of charity, extra time in prayer such as the Rosary, a visit to the sick, a donation to the poor — any corporal or spiritual work of mercy.

The emphasis of the feast is put on the faith dimension,” he noted. For example, Father Carey pointed out that since St. Patrick was a promoter of the sacrament of confession, preaching reconciliation, “If somebody is very faith-filled and looks to him and his life and makes the connection, certainly going to confession that day or around then is a possibility.”

St. Patrick’s importance comes in what he did for the people of Ireland, “which is to bring them the Gospel of Christ and plant the faith in a profound way,” Father Mahoney commented. “To me, personally, if it’s not treated as a religious holiday, I don’t understand treating it another way.”

In New York, before the parade starts, people fill St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the celebration of the patron saint. Zwilling said this emphasis on the religious nature of the day grew with the late Cardinal Terence Cooke, and then continued developing with Cardinals John O’Connor and Edward Egan.

“The Mass really is the defining moment of the day and the cathedral really is packed,” Zwilling said. “People remember this is a religious feast day and not simply people taking pride in their Irish heritage.”

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which seats 2,200, was getting so over-packed that free tickets had to be issued as a means of controlling numbers.

In fact, Joseph MacCarthy of Harrisburg, Pa., a fourth generation Irish-American who has made Irish history a lifelong study, explained that while the St. Patrick Day celebration in the last several years seems more ethnic than religious, there’s still a heavy religious significance.

No Dispensation

In his own Diocese of Harrisburg, which shares a border with Philadelphia’s archdiocese and whose patron is St. Patrick, Vicar General Father James Lyons said Bishop Kevin Rhoades has decided not to give a dispensation.

“His reasons are pretty straightforward,” Father Lyons said. “The bishop thought we have so few days throughout the year, even in Lent, when we’re asked to fast and abstain that it would not be a hardship for people to adhere to the Lenten practice. And also there’s plentiful availability of alternative foods, like fish.”   

Father Lyons clarified that the true nature of the day and the essence of a particular feast is to honor a saint and the life he led. Attending Mass on that Friday in Lent would be a way to honor St. Patrick.

“He certainly had hardships in his life, especially in his early life; he was kidnapped as a slave,” Father Lyons continued. “Remembering that in our own way and sacrificing meat that day and abstaining from it would be an appropriate way to honor St. Patrick.

“I would hope people understand it,” he added. “We see it as a sacrifice they can generously make.”

No explanation is necessary for MacCarthy, who is a parishioner at Harrisburg’s Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick and a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Under his leadership the organization has cooked and served meals of corned beef and cabbage, potatoes and Irish breads, which he bakes, to large numbers of people after the bishop’s traditional noon Mass. This year’s dinner will be served March 16.

“I look at the day as a remembrance of our Catholic faith,” he said, “and to commemorate the contributions and sacrifices our forefathers and foremothers made for us.”

Will he miss corned beef and cabbage on the Friday?

“It doesn’t have any bearing on the feast,” MacCarthy said. “We see it more as a religious than an ethnic celebration. I will probably go back to the old Irish standby of eating salmon to commemorate it. Irish salmon is considered excellent.”

Joseph Pronechen is based in

Trumbull, Connecticut.