Where did the markers of faith go?

You know you are getting old, Catholic style, when you are no longer obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That’s reserved for the younger set — the under-60 crowd. 

Most aging and creaking baby boomers such as myself consider that an insult and maintain the classic fast on those days anyway — two very light meals and a main meal. I’d like to say it’s devotion. But it really is our Peter Pan complex where we refuse to acknowledge getting older. And the fact that our digestive systems don’t allow us to eat much more than that anyway. 

Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent are also days of abstinence where we refrain from eating meat. And there’s the rub. Most baby boomers — at least those born between the end of World War II and the late 1950s — remember when every Friday of the year was meatless “under pain of sin.” 

The reason for the Friday abstinence was penitential. Every Friday was to be a day of self-denial, acknowledging our sinfulness while remembering the Passion of Christ on Good Friday and in preparation for the weekly “Easter” that is our Sunday Mass. 

I am hopeful that I will slide into purgatory by the skin of my teeth because of the slack I will get for my childhood years when I hated every kind of fish. I was raised on a weekly Friday diet of peanut-butter-and-jelly, grilled cheese and egg salad.  

For many years the Friday abstinence from meat defined Catholicism to non-Catholic Americans. Then came November 1966. The bishops of the United States made the fatal mistake of thinking we were all grown-ups. 

The bishops lifted the mandatory obligation to abstain from meat on the Fridays outside of Lent. Their collective reasoning was that for many Catholics the abstinence from meat was no abstinence at all. Without consulting with me, they argued that fine meatless meals were no penance for many. Instead, they said, choose a Friday penance, a mortification, that challenges your life, that fits your spirituality, that meets a need in your devotional life. 

In announcing the change, then-Archbishop John Krol of Philadelphia warned Catholics not to judge their fellow believers if they chose a different penance from the meatless Friday. He assumed that most Catholics would maintain the traditional abstinence and was worried they’d give the old raised eyebrow to a parishioner spotted on Friday having a dog and a beer at the ballgame. 

He couldn’t have been more wrong. With the exception of a heroic few, Catholics by and large dumped the traditional Friday abstinence within 10 minutes of the announcement and never quite fixed on that alternative penance. So much so that today many Catholics don’t even have a hold on the Lenten Friday abstinence. It’s all become foreign to them. 

There have been attempts to recapture meatless Fridays. There are a good number of Catholics who have rediscovered the merits of the penance year-round and many Catholic organizations encourage the penance with their members. The bishops of England and Wales reinstituted the traditional abstinence last September. 

The bishops of the United States have also argued for the richness of the tradition, but without much success. It seems that unless they attach the qualifier they would prefer to avoid using — “under pain of serious sin” — not much attention is being paid. It’s that grown-up thing again. 

We lose a lot when we lose these markers of faith. They are outward signs of an inner penance. They remind us of the real things and give purpose to the ordinary. Even when it is grilled cheese and egg salad. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.