It’s a warm summer evening and you’re sitting on your friend’s patio sipping a cold drink as he puts steaks on the grill. It’s Friday, finally, and steak is going to taste so good! You remember those meatless Friday dinners during Lent. Thank goodness Catholics don’t have to give up meat on the other Fridays of the year.
Or do they?
Contrary to what quite a few Catholics believe, Vatican II did not do away with most meatless Fridays. It’s no longer a sin to eat meat every Friday as it used to be, but the Church still asks us to abstain from meat or do some other form of penance each Friday because it’s a mini-Good Friday, an anniversary of Christ’s death.
We’re asked to do penance in order to suffer with Christ so that someday we will be glorified with Him. To remember our sins and those of the world and help expiate them in union with the Crucified Lord, according to the U.S. Bishops in their 1966 Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence:
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.
Canon Law states: “All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.” (§1250)
It is also a universal law of the Church to abstain from meat or another food, according to Canon Law which goes on to say, “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.” (§1251, 1253)
What do the U.S. bishops say about Friday penance?
They have given the option to abstain from other things instead of meat that might be more penitential for some. They recommend additional penitential works:
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.
During the Year of Faith, the bishops have asked Catholics to join them on Fridays in praying and fasting for renewal of a culture of life and marriage, and for the protection of religious liberty. They send participants a weekly text reminder and post on their website an intention for prayer, as well as a call for fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays. Visit their website for more details or text “FAST” to 99000.
The Catechism offers more ideas:
These “intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice … are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works). (CCC 1438)
Steak might be the right thing on a summer Friday evening but maybe not in the future. England’s episcopal conference of bishops recently revised their law to return more completely to the universal norm of abstinence. Comments from USCCB President Cardinal Timothy Dolan point to the possibility the U.S. may do the same. For now, we need to make sure some form of penance is on the day’s agenda.