Friday abstinence has to be everyone’s favourite topic when it comes to Catholicism. It is, certainly, the one that sparks the majority of conversations I have about what it’s like to live life as a Catholic. They all fall, usually, into 3 camps.
Camp 1: Why do you do that? (expressing genuine curiosity as people who know nothing about the faith)
Camp 2: Isn’t it silly? (or any questions to the extent of judging it all as silly billy religious nonsense)
Camp 3: Isn’t it legalism? (coming usually from Christians who can see some value in it but can’t quite work out why in the same way as those in Camp 1).
Having said that, the majority of my friends seem to be happy enough to accommodate me and often to do so without judgement too, and even got to the point where they think of it themselves first (go Helen <3).
Why do you do that?
The Fathers of the Oxford Oratory told their congregation that “From the earliest days of the Church, Catholics have abstained from flesh meat as part of this observance for two reasons: first, to do homage to Christ who died in the flesh on Good Friday and, second, as an act of penance for our sins.” But there is also another reason to do with the New Evangelisation. I went for lunch with two ladies on a business course once. It was a Friday, and I ordered a Tofu Bahn-Mi. Mind you, there’s nothing penitential in a tofu bahn-mi, they’re lush. However, I was asked if I’m vegetarian. I said: “no, I’m Roman Catholic”. It turned out one of the ladies was too, and I was able to tell her about Youth 2000 for her 16 years old son. Had she not been, the conversation would have been different. Who knows who overheard that conversation as it went, anyway.
Isn’t it silly? and Isn’t it legalism?
If we leave aside the form of the first question that just implies it’s silly because the whole God thing is silly, I think these questions come from the same understanding of the practice as something exterior that isn’t matched by an interior conversion. And I don’t want to suggest they don’t have a point. It happens to the best of us that we go through the motions a time or two (or a hundred…). It’s just not how it’s supposed to be, fallen humans and all that jazz. The Catechism (1430) defines penance as a repentance and a conversion of the heart, an “interior conversion, [which] urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance”. They don’t necessarily have to be signs that are visible to other human beings. You don’t have to Instagram your food (err…let’s say social media and the new evangelisation is a conversation for another time). It’s about taking a step that in many respects inconveniences you to remind yourself of something other than yourself. I’ve had many people who said they don’t get it, and I can sympathise because after all it is about your lunch. However, you know why you do it and you can’t not be thinking of why you do it as you have that yummy ham staring at your hungry self at breakfast time on a Friday morning, and you have to say “not today”.
If you don’t remember and know deep down why you do it, which is a minor sharing in the Passion of Christ (to be fair, wouldn’t watching the Star Wars prequels be a more effective spiritual exercise than something to do with food?), it does become legalism. However, that’s an argument for a greater understanding of the depth and beauty of our faith rather than one against liturgical living. If you do it in the public square for the approval of men rather than to witness, it becomes pharisaic. If it’s only an excuse to have a lush fish feast, you’re better off having it on a Monday. Given the impact of Meatfree Monday on the environment there is the argument for care of creation, too. We need to turn away from our consumerism and our “me me me” way of thinking. One day a week, if done well, is a small commitment that will start to reflect in the rest of your life, too. Someone once told me that observing abstinence every Friday diminishes the role of Lent as a penitential season. My understanding is that the whole of our life on Earth is just a long penitential season until kingdom comes anyway. After all, God allowed the Star Wars prequels to exist…