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Joe DonahueJuly 14, 2023
A dried palm cross on an otherwise empty circular teak plate surrounded by palms (iStock/Kara Gebhardt)

Before some podcasts made them newly popular, I spent a year reading through the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. One of the most interesting things that jumped out at me was the reminder that all Fridays should be penitential. On every Friday, to a certain degree, we are supposed to call to mind the passion of the Lord and acknowledge it. There is an accompanying expectation that Catholics perform some act of penance on Fridays throughout the year. One traditional way to do this has been by abstaining from meat.

As noted in the catechism, the Code of Canon Law says that abstinence from meat is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity falls on that day, if you are 14 or older (No. 1251). This began to make sense to me when I reflected on the role of Sunday Mass, when we all seek an encounter with the God who died for us and rose from the dead.

Every Sunday is, effectively, a mini-Easter, and that means there must be a mini-Good Friday to prepare us for it. To that end, Catholics were once bound to abstain from meat, which was a celebratory food when it was less plentiful, on every Friday, since Friday was nothing to celebrate.

Every Sunday is, effectively, a mini-Easter, and that means there must be a mini-Good Friday to prepare us for it.

Jesus Christ’s first call was to repentance. We hear in the Gospels that after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus began his preaching publicly, saying (Mt 4:17) that we are to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We live that call in a sacramental way through reconciliation, or confession, but our repentance should not end there. We are always in need of conversion, and Friday is a day to enter into the Lord’s passion and renew our commitment to repentance for our sinfulness and conversion toward the heart of God. This can take the form of the mortification of our bodily desires, since, as St. Paul told the Galatians, our bodies and our souls want opposing things. Self-denial allows us to be liberated from our sinful tendencies.

If every Friday throughout the year is penitential, and we are supposed to abstain from meat every Friday, why didn’t I realize this before I read the catechism a few years ago? Because Pope St. Paul VI’s 1966 apostolic constitution “Paenitemini,” which would later be incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law, allows local bishops’ conferences to permit the faithful to substitute another penance for the customary abstinence from meat on Fridays outside of Lent. (Abstinence from meat in Lent remains mandatory, since we observe the penitential spirit more ecclesially during this time.)

This permission was used by the U.S. bishops in 1966, when they released their “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence.” Recognizing that meat had become a commonplace food, no longer exceptional or associated with celebrations, the bishops reasoned, “Since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.”

Thus sometimes foregoing meat may not sufficiently subject our bodily desires to the desire for God. “The necessity of an asceticism which chastises the body and brings it into subjection,” Pope St. Paul VI wrote in “Paenitemini,” “is affirmed with special insistence by the example of Christ Himself.” He also observed that ascetic practices may need to be greater in places that are better off economically.

The reason for relaxing the no-meat-on-Friday rule was to enhance the status of Friday as a day of penance. 

Thus, the reason for relaxing the no-meat-on-Friday rule was to enhance the status of Friday as a day of penance. It allows for us to adopt a penance that might be more suitable to us, and to make personal our desire to turn toward God and be converted in mind and heart.

Penance looks different for each person, as we all enjoy different things. And note that curbing an excess like drinking or enjoying sweets is not penance but temperance, as St. Ignatius observed in the Spiritual Exercises—still virtuous but not really specially suited to call to mind the crucifixion. Personally, I find great spiritual benefit in taking cold showers on Fridays, given how much I enjoy a hot shower, or giving up salad dressing or other ingredients that make a meal more enjoyable. I might also forgo alcohol at a gathering where everyone else is drinking and I would especially enjoy it. At times, I’ve even sacrificed some sleep, an activity that becomes more attractive when I give it up.

The bishops also said in their pastoral statement that extra acts of charity on Fridays, like volunteering in a hospital or soup kitchen, could “bring great glory to God and good to souls.” In contrast to how our culture celebrates Friday as the beginning of the weekend and of leisure activities, this kind of penance gives to God our most precious resource—our time, which is finite and with limits known to God alone.

Regardless of how it is observed, our Friday penance outside of Lent can take on a more personal nature, designed to draw each of us closer to God. As we continue through the church year, let us take to heart what St. Peter said at Pentecost, and what our Lord called us to do in the earliest days of his public ministry: “repent.”

[Related: “It’s time for Catholics to go back to no meat on every Friday (not just during Lent)”]

More: Faith / Prayer / Lent

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