A recent new Catholic, a convert to the faith, writes with a Catholic Q & A question about how Friday abstinence can be observed outside of Lent if a person chooses to eat meat on Friday.
What penances are appropriate for Fridays in the place of abstaining from meat?
Good for this person for asking this question, because it shows that they aren’t just content to be a Catholic in name, they’d like to be a happy new observant Catholic, and in attempting to do so they’ve clearly done their homework. If you are Catholic (or even if you aren’t) and you don’t know what our questioner is talking about, we’ll explain while attempting, with God’s help, to give an answer to their question. Fridays have been penitential days on the Church’s calendar for centuries, and indeed the liturgical action of the Church on most Fridays reinforces this. Masses on Friday tend to be slightly more penitential in character, and this is especially true on First Fridays of the month, when many people attend Holy Mass and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and, if possible, attend Eucharistic adoration in reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the Liturgy of the Hours on most Fridays, the hymns, antiphons, and psalms reflect a spirit of penance and reflection on our sins and shortcomings (check out Lauds and Vespers for last Friday as an example). The hours of Daytime Prayer on Fridays often recall the Passion of Christ, especially in the closing prayers.
For centuries, the Church asked the faithful to join in this spirit of Friday prayer and penance by abstaining from flesh meat each Friday. Fish, amphibians, and other seafood were always acceptable because they are not considered carne, or meat that comes from beasts which move upon the land. Hence, many Catholics came to eat fish on Fridays. In the United States, this had a profound impact on our national cuisine and food culture. Those who disliked Catholics sometimes referred to us as “fisheaters” or “mackerel snappers” in a pejorative way, because a Catholic could always be counted on in many cases to order fish or seafood each Friday, or at least eat no meat. Many restaurants and hotels made fish or seafood dishes their Friday specials, knowing that they could always count on having Catholic customers, even in parts of the country where there have historically been fewer Catholics. Many of these local customs continue in our own time. Cracker Barrel, for example, always has a fish special on Fridays. A favorite local restaurant of mine which sadly closed recently always had all-you-care-to-eat catfish as the special of the day every Friday, and I don’t think the cook or any of the waitstaff at that place were actually Catholic. Knowing that Friday fish was a standard there, however, I often took lunch at Hannah’s during the Fridays of Lent (more on that in below).
After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI and many Western bishops became concerned that eating no meat or “fish on Fridays” had become a cultural distinctive for Catholics, but that many of us had lost our understanding of why it was that the Church was asking us to do this. The real purpose was to prayerfully reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death for us, and to give up something we might normally want to have-meat-as a small sacrifice and a reminder of our sins for which Christ, on that Friday long ago, died on the Cross. So Pope Paul VI changed Church law in a document called PAENITEMINI, or the Apostolic Constitution on Penance. The relevant part of that document as it pertains to the Church’s present Friday practices, especially for us in the United States, reads:
VI. 1. In accordance with the conciliar decree “Christus Dominus” regarding the pastoral office of bishops, number 38,4, it is the task of episcopal conferences to:
A. Transfer for just cause the days of penitence, always taking into account the Lenten season;
B. Substitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and the exercises of piety.
2. By way of information, episcopal conferences should communicate to the Apostolic See what they have decided on the matter.
A national episcopal conference, then, has the authority to substitute Friday fasts and abstinence with other forms of penance or charity. Note that this doesn’t say “we’re going to eat meat most Fridays, and do absolutely nothing to remind ourselves of Jesus on those days.” Bishops can transfer days of penitence, and/or substitute abstinence or fast with other practices “especially works of charity and the exercises of piety.” In 1966, the U.S. Bishops made clear their reasoning for making a substitution of the traditional practice of the abstinence from meat on Fridays outside of the Lenten season in a Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence(19-20, 23-27):
19. Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
20. Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
23. 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.
24. 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. Our expectation is based on the following considerations:
We shall thus freely and out of love for Christ Crucified show our solidarity with the generations of believers to whom this practice frequently became,especially in times of persecution and of great poverty, no mean evidence of fidelity to Christ and His Church.
We shall thus also remind ourselves that as Christians, although immersed in the world and sharing its life, we must preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world. Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.
25. Every Catholic Christian understands that the fast and abstinence regulations admit of change, unlike the commandments and precepts of that unchanging divine moral law which the Church must today and always defend as immutable. This said, we emphasize that our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except as noted above for Lent. We stress this so that “no” scrupulosity will enter into examinations of conscience,confessions, or personal decisions on this point.
26. Perhaps we should warn those who decide to keep the Friday abstinence for reasons of personal piety and special love that they must not pass judgment on those who elect to substitute other penitential observances. Friday, please God,will acquire among us other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat. In this connection we have foremost in mind the modern need for self-discipline in the use of stimulants and for a renewed emphasis on the virtue of temperance, especially in the use of alcoholic beverages.
27. It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends,our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.
The bishops themselves provided some suggestions of what someone might do as a substitute penitential act in place of abstaining from meat, things like ministering to the poor, instructing people in the ways of Christ, especially young people, visiting the sick, the homebound, and those who are marginalized and serving them in a special way. Critical to the bishops’ statement, however, is the reality that they’d still like it if we abstained from meat on Fridays when possible, of our own free will. The Code of Canon Law seems to reiterate the importance of Friday penance and abstinence, placing on our local bishops the right to determine what that might consist of:
Canon 1250—All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church.
Canon 1251—Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Canon 1253—It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
So the bishops can indeed make substitutions on the Fridays outside of Lent (and they did), but abstinence from meat on Fridays is still very strongly encouraged. However, we aren’t under the pain of sin if we fail to abstain from meat on a Friday outside of Lent, and we can’t judge those who, for whatever reason, may choose not to do so. If you choose not to abstain from meat on non-Lenten Fridays, what can you do in a practical way?
Feed people who are hungry. Visit people in prison, and the sick and homebound of the parish. If you say “I am already doing those things,” you are right that we should all be doing them whether it is Friday or not, so one suggestion might be to make time for Eucharistic adoration on Fridays, if it is available. Hopefully you already have a daily prayer routine, but Friday would be a great day to add some prayers and spiritual exercises to your daily spiritual routine that you might not otherwise be doing. In terms of penitential habits for Fridays, think about something you might be disposed to give up if it were Lent. You could cut out sugar, chocolate, caffeine, or alcohol for the day. Perhaps you could refuse that second helping at dinner, or not eat out when you might otherwise plan to…and of course, as discussed above, we are all still encouraged to abstain from meat (and that does not mean that you have to eat fish or seafood, but you can-a vegetarian meal serves the same purpose of abstinence), just not required to outside of Lent.
Our questioner had a second question that is related to the first.
Generally speaking, the penitential acts we choose under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and how closely we choose to bind ourselves to them, are between us and the Lord. He knows the disposition of our hearts, and what our intent happens to be. We should avoid anything smacking of scrupulosity, or finding sin where none happens to be. Our penitential resolutions are ours to deal with, keeping in mind that the Lord knows our reasons for keeping and breaking them. We would do well, however, to be reminded of the words of St. James (James 4:17):
Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
In other words, if your conscience is really bothering you about something, whatever that might be, then taking it to the sacrament of Reconciliation can’t possibly hurt you. I hope this response has helped you and blessed others. Remember, Jesus loves you and we do too.