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James T. KeaneMarch 15, 2023
corned beef and cabbage and carrots on a plate for st patricks dayPhoto via iStock.

St. Patrick’s Day is coming soon! Time to bust out the corned beef and cabbage, toast your immigrant ancestors and engage in some enthusiastic revels and off-key singing of “Danny Boy.” After all, even if the holiday has drifted pretty far from its original Irish roots, it’s still a raucous celebration for the 52 million Americans who claim some Irish ancestry—as well as for anyone who wants to behave poorly in public and get away with it. And it’s not just Ireland and the United States that get in on the fun. In every land to which the Irish emigrated, one can find a parade or a party, including Canada, Australia, Montserrat, Argentina and Mexico.

There’s only one problem: This year, March 17 falls on a Friday in Lent. No meat for you!

Just like that, the corned beef (or, for the actual Irish, bacon) has been replaced by fish sticks or the back side of the fast food menu or Tuna Surprise—or some other fishy recipe. How did this happen? It’s not a British plot to ruin the holiday; it’s just an unfortunate confluence with the church’s liturgical calendar that happens every few years.

It could be worse. In 1940 and again in 2008, St. Patrick’s Day fell during Holy Week, causing many dioceses to cancel their celebrations of the saint’s day, or move them to the week before. In 2008, Bishop Frederick Campbell of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, said that he wanted “all observances honoring St. Patrick” moved out of Holy Week. The head of the Shamrock Club, the local group that organizes Columbus’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, objected. “Actually, you’re born Irish first,” he said, “and then you’re baptized Catholic.” Oh my! The parade went on, a little smaller than before and without its traditional stop at a Catholic church for Mass—and, it goes without saying, without the bishop’s blessing.

If St. Patrick is the patron of a diocese—as is the case in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and many other locales—then the feast of St. Patrick is considered a solemnity, a high-ranking feast that trumps all others on the church calendar.

But most U.S. Catholics needn’t worry about the matter, because many bishops have gotten into the habit of issuing dispensations from the requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent when one of them coincides with St. Patrick’s Day. They usually cite Canon 87 from the Code of Canon Law: “A diocesan bishop, whenever he judges that it contributes to their spiritual good, is able to dispense the faithful from universal and particular disciplinary laws issued for his territory or his subjects by the supreme authority of the Church.”

Some bishops have asked that Catholics give up something else on that day, or attend Mass, or fast from meat the next day. But in plenty of places the bishop simply accedes to the popularity of the day among Catholics and issues the so-called “Corned Beef Indult.” Not everyone plays along. In 2017, prelates in both the Archdiocese of Denver and the Diocese of Lincoln declined. This year Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago have not been granted a dispensation, though a statement from the archdiocese reads, in part, “Catholics who find themselves at an event where meat is served in celebrating St. Patrick may in good conscience substitute the rule of abstinence with another form of penance or a significant act of charity that benefits the poor.”

Another little-known fact: If St. Patrick is the patron of a diocese—as is the case in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and many other locales—then the feast of St. Patrick is considered a solemnity, a high-ranking feast that trumps all others on the church calendar. According to Canon 1251, when a solemnity falls on Friday, the solemnity takes precedence and the faithful can eat meat. No need for a dispensation.

Chances are you’re going to get a dispensation to have that corned beef, and maybe you live in a place where you don’t even need it.

What does all this mean? Chances are you’re going to get a dispensation to have that corned beef, and maybe you live in a place where you don’t even need it. Which brings us to the next question: Should I use it?

Do I really need that dispensation?

Bartenders and restaurateurs certainly hope Catholics will avail themselves of the dispensation—there’s money to be made in all those sides of beef and shepherd’s pies and blood pudding and bangers and mash. But that’s a financial concern, not a question of penitence or abstinence. Isn’t it in line with the purpose of Lenten sacrifice overall just to abstain from beef, pork and fowl on the odd year the holiday lands on a Friday?

Keep in mind that the number of Catholics to whom the abstinence rule applies has its limits. Anyone under 14 can eat meat anytime during Lent, according to Canon 1252, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also exempts from abstinence “the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.”

Seems reasonable, no?

What would our ancestors—who didn’t see meat for all of Lent or on any Friday—think of our dispensation?

But shouldn’t those of us who do not meet any of those health conditions be of stouter hearts when it comes to passing up meat? Most of us are not in need of extra sustenance. It’s one day. What would our ancestors—who didn’t see meat for all of Lent or on any Friday—think of our dispensation? To quote Junior Soprano, “Real lack of standards, your generation.” Maybe it’s a boss move to stick to eating those fish sticks.

While the bridegroom is with you

Of course, there’s another point of view to consider. Are we ignoring the importance of a feast when we acknowledge it instead with a fast? The dual meaning of feast in the church has some significance, in the sense that it is a time for celebration and gratitude for the gifts we have received. And while there might be something just so on-the-nose Irish about ruining their own feast day with a church rule, maybe God wants us to celebrate when it’s appropriate, the same way God asks for our penitence—when it’s appropriate.

Along those lines, it might be worth remembering that the feast of St. Joseph, on March 19 every year, also falls on a Friday in Lent just as often as St. Patrick’s Day. Notice that there is never a dispute about whether or not we can eat meat on that solemnity. Of course we can.

Remember the Gospel reading for Feb. 24, the first Friday in Lent?

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

In other words, there’s a time to fast and a time to feast—and if your bishop, your pastor and your own common sense all tell you it’s a time to feast, perhaps you should go for it. The Irish will thank you for it. And there will be time for fasting on Saturday.

More: Lent / US Church

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