How are you commemorating the end of the week?
Most Catholics are aware of the practice of abstaining from meat on Friday. It’s one of the more public Lenten practices. It’s given rise to phenomena such as meatless recipes in diocesan newspapers and the popularity of Friday parish fish fries that, in some cities, have become part of the popular culture.
Abstaining from meat on Friday is a small sacrifice, a denial of our desires, a penitential practice that should put us a little more in touch with the ultimate sacrifice that Christ made for us. This practice should remind us of our sinfulness, as well as our need for conversion and salvation.
Unlike other Lenten practices, which, ideally, call us to ongoing conversion and positive changes in our lives that will persist long after Lent is over, Friday abstinence has a definite end point: Good Friday.
That’s all well and good, but did you know that, as Catholics, we are called to a penitential practice every Friday of the year?
If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone.
First, a little background. Abstaining from meat on Friday was a penitential observance that Catholics had practiced for centuries. As the United States bishops’ conference put it in a 1966 pastoral statement, Christ died for us on Friday, so “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.”
Changing social and dietary customs, as well as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, led the U.S. bishops to ease obligatory Friday abstinence in 1966. The bishops recognized that meat, which had once been a luxury, was now a common part of the diet.
While the bishops relaxed the abstinence regulations for Friday’s outside of Lent, the intent was never to eliminate penitential practices on Friday. Rather, the motivation was to “give the spirit of penance greater vitality” by expanding the options beyond abstinence.
Here’s how the bishops’ statement presents it:
Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified…we urge all to…mak[e] of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, somewhere in the aftermath of Vatican II, this message got lost in translation. Be honest. When was the last time (if ever) you heard that every Friday should be a day of penance?
So if you’re really interested in improving your spiritual life (or, as the bishops put it in a phrase I really like, “seeking perfection”), consider building a penitential practice into your Friday routine.
What to do? The bishops’ initial suggestion is the most obvious, in a “back to the future” sort of way: continue to abstain from meat on Friday as a free choice rather than an obligation. Abstinence demonstrates our solidarity with generations of believers who engaged in this practice, as well as an outward sign of our inward spiritual values.
Not interested in substituting spinach for steak as a year-round penitential practice? The bishops offer several other alternatives:
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.
That’s quite a list to choose from, but the bishops don’t stop there. They also recommend self-control in the use of stimulants and temperance in the use of alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol on Friday? Now, that would be sacrifice, not to mention a counter-cultural witness.
So, what are you doing this Friday?