I am a proud carnivore. I often show my cuspid teeth to my vegan buddy as a reminder to him that our genetics created these to rip and tear meat. In addition, not being a fan of the greens he eats, I offer to save him my lawn clippings each summer. In this regard, each Friday of Lent I dutifully look to the freezer for a cheese pizza or find a Taco Bell nearby for a bean burrito. I thought I was being a “good Catholic” by following the Lenten regulations on abstaining from meat. I also recall my mother’s stories of her not being able to eat meat on any Friday, not just those during Lent. I thought that was cool – having a Catholic ’identity” is something we’ve forgotten of late.
Recently, I was told that the Church never abandoned its rule on meatless Fridays. Huh? I was taught that meatless Fridays were scrapped, except during Lent, with Vatican II. Ugh. Why do I listen to society? I figured I better investigate this.
What did I learn? That it was time to stock up on Taco Bell coupons again…
Yep, once more those old wives were spinning their tales. Friday abstinence from meat has never been abolished by the Church. In fact, it remains the universal law of the Latin Church. Oh Man, does that mean another special trip to confession for Greg? Fortunately, not for this. Greg was not aware of this sin. Being three years old at the time, I was not aware that in 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence” in which they declared, among other things:
“Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, 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.”
Deacon Steven Greydanus pointed out that to the bishops, the intent of this statement was continuing to abstain from meat by “free choice.” (NCR, 8 Apr 2016) To the American laity, “terminate the traditional law” meant no more weekly abstinence. So, while Greg’s CCD classes focused on “Someone’s hurting, Lord, kum ba yah” no one told little Greg to knock off the baloney and cheese sandwiches on Fridays as a sign of penance.
What are we called to do?
It is rather simple. On Friday’s outside of Lent, Catholics are still called to observe an act penance. This has traditionally been an abstinence from meat. I would say to my vegetarian friends that not eating meat on a Friday is not much of an act of penance for you. However, here is the cool part – the key today is an “act” of penance. If “penance” is abstaining from meat, then do it. But, U.S. bishops allow us to substitute a penance to perform on Fridays. What has been lost in the translation for Catholics today is that we are called to perform an act of penance to remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Our attention is on mental awareness, not the “act.” As with most actions, our focus should be on the intent.
With abstinence from meat, those old wives worked overtime with their tales. Never has it been a penance to help the fish industry, or papal intent to influence our diets. We’ve heard similar tales for years. There are no records to support this. No, the focus is on the day that Jesus took a horrible beating and died for us. My bean burrito does not atone for this, it just reminds me of this love; a love that Jesus has for each of us.
Well, Greg’s conscious is now informed. What should Greg do?
While I applaud the notion of bringing back a Catholic identity to Fridays, I really like the notion of an “act” of penance on Fridays. The Church is not asking us to run a marathon or eat sushi. No, the Church is asking us to take a moment in our hectic Friday to remind ourselves of something more important than our weekend plans – it wants us thinking of our eternal plans. That hunger pang on Good Friday is meant to remind us of what Christ did for us. Perhaps on a routine Friday we can be like Jesus and do something for someone else. We can go to “Feed My Starving Children” (https://www.fmsc.org/) and pack meals for the needy. We can donate what we normally spend on our lunch to “Mary’s Meals” (https://www.marysmeals.org/) or “Word Made Flesh” (https://wordmadeflesh.org/) and focus on somebody’s else’s hunger for a change.
In our fast paced society, it is so vitally important to stop and refocus. Our act of penance can be contemplative prayer on our need to find better balance in our lives. Thanks to the Miles Christi Order, my Friday penance has become praying the Seven Sorrows rosary. It is a wonderful way to draw ourselves out of the “self” society tells us to focus on.
We have to learn that penance, abstinence and fasting are not “rules” to follow but, “disciplines” to help us find freedom over our additions – our additions to the focus on “me,” or our additions to power, wealth and titles. A few moments in contemplation routinely reminds me of how much self-discipline I have given away. In my youth, I was much more eager to exercise and eat less. Think of all the nonsense that we record on television and use as an excuse to watch rather than go out into the world. My dog has it right. Taking a walk is better than just about anything on television. Monday Night Raw included!
Join me. Let’s make a pact to return to our Friday act of penance. Whether it is no meat, an extra prayer or helping someone we normally ignore, let’s live our faith.