Honoring Christ’s sacrifice with penance every Friday

Most active Catholics are aware of the obligatory days of fasting and abstinence that punctuate the penitential season of Lent. If somehow we don’t know or can’t remember the exact rules, our parish bulletins, homilies and the Catholic media provide frequent reminders. But what about penitential times outside Lent? Isn’t every Friday meant to be a day of penance?

A book called the Didache or “The Teachings of the 12 Apostles,” written between the first and third centuries, called early Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. While Wednesday was eventually dropped in the Western Church, Friday has always been a day of penance — a day when Catholic Christians remember the agony, the suffering and the death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Changing the rules

For centuries, Catholics abstained from meat on Fridays as a collective penitential practice. Many remember the wall calendar hanging in the kitchen that depicted the outline of a fish on every Friday of the month. The calendar did not remind us to eat fish, rather, that we had to abstain from meat. It was a serious, Churchwide obligation and part of our Catholic identity.

One story about Friday abstinence is related by William F. Buckley Jr., in his book, “Nearer, My God” (Harvest Books, $20.95). He tells of being on a Friday international flight from Rome to New York in the mid-1960s. The meal menu included meat selections; the small print at the bottom read, “Roman Catholics on this flight, by agreement reached between [the airline] and the Vatican, are exempt from dietary obligations on Fridays.”

It was a true statement; in fact, other airlines in that era requested and received such dispensations. The incident demonstrates the widespread recognition, even admiration, that every aspect of society had for Catholics and their commitment to avoid meat on Fridays. 

In September 1966, Blessed Pope Paul VI changed the rules of fasting and abstinence. The pope’s apostolic constitution, Paenitemini, on fast and abstinence reduced the number of such days (as many as 70) to: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (fasting and abstaining) and abstaining on all Fridays. Interestingly, the determination of how fasting and abstaining would be observed was left to the national conference of bishops in each country who were allowed to, “Substitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and exercises of piety.”

The pope’s instructions were included in canon law issued in 1983:

— Canon 1250. The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

— 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 (nisi) 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.

— Canon 1253. The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.

U.S. guidelines

In 1966, the U.S. bishops implemented Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution. While the bishops encouraged voluntary abstinence from meat, they authorized U.S. Catholics to eat meat on Fridays outside Lent provided another kind of penance was substituted (see sidebar). The bishops did not relax the traditional rules of fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, or of abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent. Bishops in other countries issued similar guidance.

Some claim the U.S. bishops’ 1966 instructions are vague and not specific regarding obligatory non–Lenten Friday penance. Others reading the same instructions conclude that the bishops did not negate every Friday as an obligatory penitential day but a day of deliberate self-denial, charitable work and contemplation of Christ’s passion. The latter opinion fits the penitential traditions of Catholic life.

Jesuit Father John Hardon in his 1975 book “The Catholic Catechism” wrote: “Fridays do not disappear as days of penance, and the faithful may continue to practice abstinence if they so desire or, if the bishops decide, abstinence can be prescribed. But other means are now available to make the Fridays of each week something of what Lent is in the entire year.”

The U.S. bishops provided subsequent information in a 2001 document titled, “Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics.” In that publication, the bishops confirm the traditional practices of abstinence and fasting during Lent and then point out: “In memory of Christ’s suffering and death, the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year as a penitential day.” The term “prescribes” means to order or dictate.

The bishops also reiterate their decision, made in accordance with canon law, allowing U.S. Catholics to substitute another form of penance for meat abstinence on the Fridays outside of Lent. While the 2001 document includes a list of suggested penitential practices, the selection of a Friday penance was (is) left to the individual. There is no discussion as to whether failure to comply is sinful.

Revisiting the issue

In 2011, Catholic bishops in England and Wales reversed their earlier actions permitting Catholics to practice a penance other than meat abstinence on Fridays. They said, in part: “The bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. … It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance. Respectful of this, and in accordance with the mind of the whole Church … the bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this [Friday Penance] should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat.”

From time to time, U.S. bishops have commented that they, too, may eventually revisit their decision regarding Friday abstinence.

The Holy See, canon law and our bishops define every Friday as a penitential day. On Lenten Fridays, we abstain from meat. On all other Fridays, U.S. Catholics can abstain from meat or practice some other form of penance. We willingly make these sacrifices in commemoration of the One who sacrificed his life for us.

D.D. Emmons writes from Pennsylvania.

Pastoral Statement
On Nov. 18, 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released its “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,” which was reaffirmed in 1983. Included in the document is a discussion on the penitential nature of Fridays. Under the part of the statement titled, “Christ Died for Our Salvation on Friday,” they explain that because of economic, dietary and social conditions, meat abstinence may not be the most effective penitential means, and for some, such abstinence no longer implies penance. Here are other points made by the bishops: