A recent decision, by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, to reintroduce the practice of abstaining from meat on Friday’s, has highlighted the fact that some Catholics believed that the practice of Friday penance had been stopped completely by the Church.
Here is the exact wording of the resolution, by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, for Catholics living in England and Wales:
“By the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.
” [Sic] [i]
Contrary to what some may believe, Friday penance was never stopped by the Church. It remains a requirement in accordance with Canon Law:
“All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church.” (Canon 1250)
“Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.” (Canon 1251)
“All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.” (Canon 1252)
It seems to me that what has created confusion, is probably the provision of Canon 1253. This permits the conference of bishops to authorise that the observance of fasting and abstinence be substituted with another form of penance.
“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.” (Canon 1253)
The sad part is that many Catholics have actually misunderstood this completely. In the absence of them being required to abstain from meat on Fridays, many Catholics have incorrectly assumed that the practice of observing Friday penance has been stopped completely. This may well mean that today many Catholics are not observing the Friday penance at all anymore because of this misunderstanding.
All Catholics are still required to observe Friday penance, either by abstaining from meat, or where the bishops have authorised this, by substituting this practice with some other penitential practice on the Friday. In England and Wales, the conference of bishops has decided that this option to substitute is no longer applicable. Catholics in England and Wales are therefore now required to abstain from meat.
Personally, I like to keep the habit of abstaining from meat on a Friday, even if I am permitted to substitute in South Africa. It creates a habit that conveniently reminds me during the day, particular at meal times, that it is a Friday. The day on which our Lord showed how much he loved us through the suffering that he endured. Thereby creating an opportunity to reflect and say thank you.
[i] Catholic Bishops Conference, England and Wales, Spring 2011 Plenary Resolutions – Catholic Witness: Friday Penance