One of the classic parts of Lent is not eating meat on Fridays – but why?
The practice of penitential days has a long and varied history. The words “penitential” and “penance” come from the same word as “repentance.” They indicate sorrow for sin, as well as a resolution for change. The practice of penance is ultimately about disconnecting from whatever is keeping us from authentically following Christ, healing the wounds that have been caused (to ourselves, to others, or to our relationship with God), and seeking to follow Christ more closely.
Different types of fasting have been practiced throughout the history of the Church and in different regions. The days chosen have mainly been Wednesdays (the traditional day of Judas’ decision to betray Jesus), Fridays (the day of the Crucifixion), and Saturdays/Vigils (in preparation for the feast day to come). Abstaining from “flesh meat” (the meat of warm-blooded animals) represents embracing a poorer meal, giving up luxury, and seeking to follow our spiritual vocation rather than just living for earthly things. Doing this publicly as a group gives us mutual support and a common witness to living our faith. It helps connect us with the poor and suffering. The Christian is called not to an easy life, but a great life. St Paul uses the image of an athlete training for competition (1 Corinthians 9:27). The path of penance helps to set us free from slavery to “the path of least resistance” and to embrace our true vocation!
As many remember, in the United States it used to be required to abstain from meat every Friday of the year. In 1966 a statement was issued by the National Conference of Bishops that removed this particular requirement (except for Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays). The goal of this was not to remove the spiritual significance of Friday. The Bishops saw that for many people the practice of abstaining from meat had lost its meaning. They encouraged creativity to find new ways to make Friday special – whether that meant giving up something that was more personally significant, engaging more fully in prayer/piety, or seeking opportunities for works of charity. Here is an excerpt from the 1966 statement:
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… 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…
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.
In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. Rather, let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God’s people.
(I highly recommend reading the full text here- https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year-and-calendar/lent/us-bishops-pastoral-statement-on-penance-and-abstinence)
Sadly the hopes of this document were not realized, and most Catholics are unaware of what this instruction actually said beyond removing the old requirement. Instead of renewing our practice and developing new methods (or embracing the old methods with personal commitment rather than obligation), the special character of Friday was almost completely lost. Yet, it remains part of the current practice of the Church. The current Code of Canon Law for the universal Church states:
The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. 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. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. 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. (canons 1250, 1251, and 1253)
What does this mean for us? It means that Friday is still called to be observed as a special day each week, even though the requirement to abstain from meat only applies during Lent in the United States. For other Fridays of the year we may freely choose what practice we will undertake, guided by the classic categories of Lent (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving/works of mercy).
By sharing this I don’t mean to just add another burden to your plate! Instead, I want to make this known because I see a deep wisdom in this. I have found in my own life the value of the weekly reminder to add a little more spiritual focus. It is good to have a plan for what we will do on Fridays, or for what intention we will offer our sacrifice. We all need spiritual discipline to really thrive at life and develop our faith.
Likewise, I think there is another important reminder in this text of canon law: we are preparing for a celebration! It points out that things are different on a solemnity. Fulton Sheen said that we can either practice a fast that leads to a feast, or a feast that leads to a headache! In other words, when we take the time for penitential days, the days of celebration have greater value. When we merely binge/indulge without structure, however, the true joy of the celebrations is lost. The end goal is to rejoice in the gift of salvation. For this reason, Sunday is never considered a day of fasting. Likewise, neither are Solemnities (first-class feast days), even when they fall on a Friday. An example of this is the Solemnity of St Joseph (March 19), which falls on a Friday this year – even though it is Lent, we are not required to abstain from meat (although prayer and works of mercy are still fitting!). As the book of Nehemiah says, “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10)