How Are Catholics Supposed to Live Friday’s Outside of Lent?
TGIF! Thank God it’s Friday! This is such a common expression that we rarely even think about it. But, how exactly does a Catholic thank God for Friday?
The primary way Catholics are called to thank God on Friday is by remembering the sacrifice of Jesus with some form of Penance. This was the source of the long-standing tradition of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays all throughout the year.
But I thought Vatican II changed all that?
The answer to that question is “well, it did sort of change it.” What do I mean? Well, canon law still stipulates that Fridays are to be a day of penance.
“Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.” (Vatican.va)
Cannon law actually still includes a requirement to abstain from meat or some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference (Can. 1251).
However, after Vatican II the form of penance is now allowed to vary.
“Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.” (Vatican.va)
How could it change?
It might be good to start our discussion with why it was even possible to change the requirements. Why was it considered a sin to eat meat on Friday in the past, but now it is okay?
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a document entitled “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence” in 1966 to address this very question. Within the document they address reasons for the change in discipline and how we should honor Fridays.
The Bishops initiate the discussion by reminding us of the importance of Fridays in the life of the church and the meaning of our sacrifices:
“… Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.”
The requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays was what is known as a holy “discipline”. A discipline is a requirement imposed for our own good. Much like the rules in our house, there is a consequence for breaking them. Hence, eating meat on Friday was considered a sin. It should be noted, however, that the sin is not so much about the meat, but rather the willful disregard for the will of our Holy Mother the Church. Again, it is similar to the rules for children in our house. Oftentimes, I am more upset with my children about their willful obstinance and disregard for the expectations we have set in place than for my actual regard for the rule in place. Additionally, just like the rules in our house, holy disciplines are contextual and can change over time.
Due to changing circumstances abstinence from meat no longer seems to be the most suitable means of penance in the modern world. Hence, in the wisdom of the church it seems appropriate to allow greater latitude.
“For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.”
So, then what are we supposed to do?
First, it is noteworthy that the changes in custom are designed to give “greater vitality” to our penance. Whatever we do, whether large or small, ought to be done with great zeal and the Bishops suggest that we refrain from the things we enjoy most.
“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.”
Hence, our penance is now allowed to be quite personal. Rather than simply abstaining from meat which has varying degrees of attraction to each of us, we can now substitute an item which is quite personal. For example, rather than sacrificing meat on Fridays outside of lent, I fast from reading about my favorite sports teams. This may sound trivial at first, but it does have great meaning for me. First, it does require effort. Secondly, surfing the web and reading about my favorite teams can easily become a great time waster for me. It can also cause me to neglect my duties as a father, being absorbed by my iPad at the expense of paying attention to my children and my spouse. My Friday penance is now moved beyond a mere act of discipline and directed toward controlling an attachment to trivial distractions.
The Bishops also offer an additional suggestion for penance on Fridays:
“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.”
Thus, the Bishops recommend that we imitate Christ’s example of service as a means to building virtue each Friday. They encourage penitential action which expands outward. It seems to me that this is a very overlooked opportunity. I can only imagine the change we would see in the world if every Catholic would dedicate Friday in the manner described above. This kind of intentionality could eradicate so much loneliness and suffering and the Church (through her faithful) would truly walk as Christ in the world.
I implore you to read the Bishops document in its entirety. It is actually incredibly brief (about the length of this blog) and it will transform the way you think about fasting. It can be found at this link.