The recent decision by the bishops of England and Wales to return to the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays might be a bit confusing to those who believed this practice was abolished after the Second Vatican Council. The truth is this penitential practice has remained a part of our Catholic tradition. Here is how the current code of canon law reads.
Canon 1250 All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.
Canon 1251 Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In addition, however, the code gives the bishops of each country permission to substitute other forms of penance if they believe it will be of benefit to the faithful.
Can. 1253 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.
This change in practice in countries like England and the United States was based upon the 1966 document by Pope Paul VI entitled Paenitemini, which was intended to both define the rules for fasting and abstinence and to explain its spiritual benefits.
It is unfortunate that many Catholics have apparently misheard what our bishops have said and rather than substituting works of charity or prayer in place of abstaining from meat on Fridays, have simply dropped the practice altogether. I often think Pope Paul VI may have made a mistake on this one and wonder what would have happened if instead of allowing for a substitution, he were to have called for the addition of increased prayer and works of charity on Fridays.
I would like to share five reasons I agree with bishops of England and Wales on the restoration of this practice.
1. Fasting and abstinence are penitential. Fridays above all else for Christians are days when we recall the passion and death of our savior Jesus Christ. Having a physical reminder throughout the day of this is a powerful way to remind ourselves of the forgiveness attained for us through the cross. Participating in some form of penance on this day unites us more closely to Christ himself.
2. Fasting and abstinence increase our discipline. The dean of students at the Catholic high school where I once served as Spiritual Director liked to remind the students that the words disciple and discipline are closely related. Those who wish to be followers of Christ need discipline in order to be successful. If we are unable to exercise control over our body, how much more difficult will it be to control our spirit when we are tempted to fix our eyes on things other than Christ?
3. Fasting and abstinence lead to purification. You are what you eat. Fasting and abstinence allow us to do outwardly what we are attempting as Christians to do inwardly. We should be continually seeking greater purity within ourselves, so as to allow more and more room for God. Fasting is a way of reminding ourselves that when we take in less of the things of this world, there is more space for the things of the next. It might also remind us that it is not only the things that we take in through our mouths, but also through our eyes, ears and other senses that can do harm to our souls.
4. Fasting and abstinence remind us we are not alone. Meatless Fridays can be a powerful reminder of the communal nature of our faith. We are not individual Christians but the unified Body of Christ. Having a common outward sign of penance and preparation for the Lord’s Day can strengthen our ability to live the faith when we see others are trying to do the same. We are all constantly being tempted to give up. Knowing that others are also being tested, but choose to continue on the journey towards God can give us encouragement in times of weakness.
5. Fasting and abstinence allow us to give witness to our Catholic faith. Fridays of Lent were always interesting as a child growing up in the predominantly Baptist South. Non-Catholic friends always questioned why I wasn’t eating meat. Those conversations provided many opportunities to speak about our faith to those unfamiliar with it. How many more opportunities would there have been if I had been abstaining every Friday? Restoring this simple practice could be a huge help to evangelization.
Whether or not our bishops will decide to follow the lead of their brothers in England and Wales is yet to be seen, but I for one hope they will at least consider doing so. If they do, many Catholics will make the charge that we are simply going backwards, becoming more legalistic and abandoning the “spirit” of Vatican II. My own experience tells me that sometimes backtracking isn’t all bad, especially if there is a path that leads to a richer and fuller practice of our faith.