I have a modest proposal to promote Catholic life in our day. It is simple and
hopefully not too controversial. My suggestion is that Catholics in the United States return to the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays throughout the year.
The Code of Canon Law number 1251 lays this out very clearly: “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.”
What’s the significance of Friday? Friday, of course, is the day when Jesus died on the cross for the salvation of the world. Just as we celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord by gathering as a community for the Eucharist each Sunday, so the tradition began in the church of finding some way to practice penance on Fridays as a way to unite ourselves to the Lord in his redemptive suffering for us. Of course, these practices were carried out in various ways from place to place. Monasteries undertook more penitential practices than, say, a typical family on Friday night.
Yet abstaining from meat was – and remains in universal law! – a small practice that united us all. Every Catholic – no matter his or her status or vocation in the church, from the pope right on down to a newly baptized person – carried out this one act together as an expression of common devotion to our Lord.
Except, of course, that this practice went away in the United States. In 1966, the bishops of the United States decreed that it was no longer necessary to avoid meat on Friday. Instead, they indicated that while an act of penance was still required on Fridays, it could be done in other ways, perhaps by giving up another kind of food or doing something active for others like visiting the sick. They indicated that avoiding meat was still to be given “first place” in Friday penance.
They also said, in terminating the law of abstinence from meat, that the hope was “that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.” This, as we know, did not happen. Avoiding meat became a thing we did on Fridays in Lent only.
By the time I was growing up, not only was there no longer any sense that Fridays were meatless, but there wasn’t even much of a sense of how it was different from any other day. (As a side note, isn’t it fascinating how many people have voluntarily adopted vegetarianism and veganism in the years since this mandate was taken away?)
Now, you’re probably saying to yourself right now: with all the problems in the church and the world, this is what he’s worried about? Yes, I admit that in the grand scheme of things, whether or not a Catholic can or cannot eat meat on Fridays is not all that important. And I certainly have no issue with the bishops’ encouragement to find other ways to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy as acts of Friday penance.
And yet, let me offer a few reasons why it can help us. First, Pope Francis has rightly emphasized the unity of the church in the midst of great divisions, which include divisions about liturgy and the acceptance of the Second Vatican Council. Wouldn’t re-emphasizing this one activity that we all do together strengthen these bonds of unity?
While it may seem trivial, the idea that I am in union with my brothers and sisters in Christ in this small act of solidarity with Christ has a certain beauty to it, especially when we consider how many do not have this option because of poverty and lack of adequate food.
Secondly, many people express to me how they want to grow in their relationship with God and particularly in the virtue of patience. How better to grow in patience than to put up with the small annoyance of not being able to add pepperoni to a pizza on Friday? Indeed, unless we voluntarily learn to say no to ourselves, we will not be able to sustain patience in the face of real tests of faith.
Some might respond that making it obligatory takes away the voluntary nature of it. And of course, that’s quite right. But think about it: when a football coach gets a group of high school freshmen together for the first practice, he makes them run. A lot. Yet by mandating that, he is hoping they will build up a good habit, because if they want to improve as players, they will need to run not just when it is mandated, but also in their spare time.
In this age of anxiety and loneliness, when it seems so many relationships have become frayed, I believe giving up meat each Friday out of love for Jesus Christ can be a simple but profound way to grow in communion with other members of Christ’s body, the church. Especially in the United States, where we are prone to a particularly unhealthy form of individualism, this common sign can have powerful spiritual effects.
We know our culture is in need of healing. Maybe we’re in need of some tuna salad as well.
Father Eric J. Banecker is pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Philadelphia.
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