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Q. I have a friend from Michigan who says muskrat is a traditional Lenten dish there. Isn’t muskrat a meat? It’s definitely not a fish. But I guess that eating muskrat would be a penance in any case.
M.E., via email
A. I must admit that I hadn’t heard of this one before. At TCA in the past we’ve received Lenten questions about whether it’s allowed to escargot (snails), frog legs or alligator stew. (The matter is apparently debated by the best canon gourmets … I mean, lawyers.) But muskrat has never been mentioned to us in this regard.
As it turns out, the custom of eating muskrat in Michigan during Lent goes back at least to the early nineteenth century and perhaps before. At that time Father Gabriel Richard, the celebrated missionary priest, ministered to a Michigander flock that included many French-Canadian trappers.
According to local legend, trappers and their families had a hard time finding food that wasn’t flesh during the long, cold weeks of Lent. (In those days, Catholics had to abstain from meat every day in Lent except Sundays, not just on Fridays.) So the good father allowed the people to eat muskrat. After all, the critter lives in the water!
Whether the custom ever became the subject of a formal dispensation of the local church is debated, as are the precise boundaries of the area included in the dispensation. A 2002 document from the Archdiocese of Detroit notes that “there is a longstanding permission — dating back to our missionary origins in the 1700s — to permit the consumption of muskrat on days of abstinence, including Fridays of Lent.”
In 1956 the Bishop of Lansing ruled that even though muskrat is a mammal rather than a fish, eating it during Lent was permitted because the practice had been around so long in the area that it was “immemorial custom,” making it permissible under church law.
Muskrats are foot-long rodents. It’s hard for me to imagine eating one, but then I recall that my mother grew up eating possum, squirrel and raccoon in rural Georgia. So I suppose it’s just a failure of imagination on my part.
In any case, some parishes in Michigan have muskrat dinners during Lent. I hear that it goes great with creamed corn, sauerkraut or mashed potatoes and gravy. And the hind legs are the best part!
The big question: Does it taste like chicken? Better ask a Michigander. I think I’ll stick with salmon patties.
Q. Someone recently told me that pretzels have their origin in medieval Lenten practices. Is that true?
P.E., via email
A. Yes, according to tradition, that’s correct. In earlier times, Lenten abstinence laws were much stricter than they are now. Throughout the forty days — not just on Fridays (but not on Sundays) — Catholics abstained from eating not just meat, but also eggs and dairy products. Only one meal was taken a day, usually toward evening, though eventually the meal was moved up to 3:00 p.m. or even noon.
After the meal became established at the earlier time of day, a collation (small snack) came to be allowed in the evening. People needed some kind of light food that fit the abstinence rules, and pretzels filled the bill.
Traditions vary about the exact origins of the snack. One popular story says that a young monk in the early seventh century in Italy was preparing a special Lenten bread of water, flour and salt. (No eggs, milk or lard could be used as ingredients). To remind the other monks that Lent was a time of prayer, he rolled the dough in strips and twisted each strip in the distinctive pretzel shape we know today. This design reflected what was then a popular prayer posture of crossing the arms upon the chest.
The dough was baked to become a soft bread like the large soft pretzels we sometimes enjoy today. In time, the smaller, hard-baked variety was developed as well (not to mention pretzel sticks).
What’s the origin of the name? One tradition says it comes from the Latin word bracellae, meaning “little arms” (at prayer). From this word, the Germans derived the word bretzel, which came into English as pretzel. Another story insists that the term comes from the Latin pretiola, which means “little reward,” because the legendary originator of the treat gave the breads to children as rewards for reciting their prayers.
Whatever their precise origin may be, let’s all enjoy some pretzels this Lenten season — and let them remind us to pray!
Beatification for Sister Lucia?
Q. It’s been three years now since the death of Sister Lucia dos Santos, who was the only one of the three young seers of Fátima to survive to adulthood. The other two seers have been beatified. What about Sister Lucia?
L.S., via email
A. First, some background.
The apparitions of Our Lady of Fátima in Portugal took place beginning May 13, 1917, when Lucia was 10 years old. The other two visionaries, Francois and Jacinta Marto, died in 1919 and 1920 respectively; they were her cousins. These two were beatified in Rome on May 13, 2000.
Sister Lucia do Santos, a Carmelite, died February 13, 2005, at the age of 97.
After a Mass marking the third anniversary of her death twelve days ago, in the cathedral in Coimbro, Portugal, an announcement was made by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, C.M.F., the president of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. He said that Pope Benedict XVI, in response to a request from Bishop Albino Mamede Cleto of Coimbra (on behalf of many bishops and faithful throughout the world), has in Sister Lucia’s case waived the five-year waiting period for the beginning of a cause of canonization, which is established by canonical norms (see Art. 9 of Normae servandae). This means that the diocesan stage of the cause for her beatification may now begin.
Pope Benedict dispensed with the established waiting period in a previous case as well, that of Pope John Paul II. He made the announcement on May 13, 2005, the feast of Our Lady of Fátima, just forty-two days after John Paul’s death.
Pope John Paul II himself waived the waiting period in the case of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. She died September 5, 1997, and was beatified on October 19, 2003.
Wash Off the Ashes?
Q. In Matthew 6:17, Jesus says, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.” If we leave the ashes we receive on our foreheads all day, how does that correspond to washing one’s face? Or do the ashes cleanse us spiritually, or something to that effect?
T. A., via email
A. Let’s look at the context of Jesus’ words — both the statements preceding them and the cultural situation they represent.
Leading into this command, Our Lord said: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others to be fasting” (Matthew 6:16a).
In Jesus’ day, within certain religious circles people who fasted would make a show of their claim to holiness by their appearance and demeanor. Since fasting for religious reasons was customarily accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth and ashes (traditional signs of mourning for sin), whenever they fasted they went around in public unkempt and unwashed; they assumed a glum countenance. They wanted others to notice them, and they knew that within Jewish society, nearly everyone they met would recognize these customary indicators of fasting.
Jesus knew that many of the people who practiced this custom were hypocrites. That is, their intention was not to be truly holy, but simply to be viewed by others as holy. The sad and dirty face, the rumpled clothes, were calculated to elicit a response of admiration for their religious behavior. Jesus didn’t want His followers to imitate them.
In contemporary Western culture, at least, the situation on Ash Wednesdays is quite different from that. Non-Christians (and even some Christians) often mock those whose foreheads are smudged with ashes. Others may not mock, but they wince in disdain at the practice.
In these circumstances, keeping the ashes on our faces throughout the day doesn’t often elicit admiration from others, but rather contempt or indifference. Our intention in wearing them, then, is clearly not that we hope to be viewed by others as holy. In fact, the people I know who wear the ashes all day have quite other intentions.
They want to say to the world, “Yes, I’m a sinner in need of repentance.” They seek to show their solidarity with other penitential Christians on this holy day. They even hope that the smudge on their face might provoke a thought or conversation with someone who needs to know, or be reminded, that all of us are sinners in need of God’s grace.
Q. In the Old Testament (Leviticus 11:1-47; Deuteronomy 14:3-21), some animals are listed as unclean and therefore not to be eaten. What is the position of the Catholic Church on eating the “unclean” animals?
J.M., via email
A. The Old Testament dietary laws had important functions. Among other things, they limited the social interaction of the ancient Jews with pagan peoples, which would typically have taken place around the meal table. Those who didn’t observe the laws served “unclean” dishes in their homes, so the Jews couldn’t share meals with them.
As a result, following these laws provided at least a partial shield against the bad influences of neighbors who practiced idolatry and certain immoral practices connected to such worship, such as child sacrifice and ritual prostitution in pagan temples.
Once the Son of God became Man, however, the rationale for this separation ended among Christians. Christ’s Church was to be universal, including both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). As St. Paul observed: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon Him (Romans 10:12).
For this reason, Jesus himself declared all foods to be clean (see Mark 7:14-23). The Church later did the same (see Acts chapter 10).
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