No fish on Fridays — all year long

By | April 4, 2014

More bishops considering bringing back the tradition to emphasize Friday penance

Did you think meatless Fridays were only for Lent?

In fact, church law (last revised in 1983) states that all Catholics must abstain from meat on every Friday (canon 1253) in the year. However, the same code also allows local bishops’ conferences to determine how this is practiced. So, in the United States, we follow abstinence norms on Fridays during Lent, and are to perform acts of penance — “works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance” (as the U.S. bishops state in their pastoral on penance and abstinence) — each Friday.

For centuries, Catholics abstained from meat every Friday. While early Christians fasted on Fridays in memory of the Lord (who died on a Friday), the second century Christian teaching called the Didache, called upon followers of Christ to fast on both Wednesdays and Fridays.

In 866 A.D., Pope Nicholas I made Friday abstinence from meat a universal rule of the church. By the 12th century, abstinence and fasting on Friday, for penance as well as in memorial of Christ’s Passion, were common practices. Most Catholics were bound by the rules, even children as young as 12. However, many exemptions were allowed: for travelers, students, the sick, even those with “physically demanding jobs.”

During Lent, it was not just meat that was forbidden. For centuries, any animal byproduct fell under the Lenten ban. This included lard, butter, cheese and eggs. (That is where the tradition of Fat Tuesday — Mardi Gras in French — started: Everyone had to use up all their meat and animal-based foods before Lent began on Ash Wednesday.)

All that changed in 1966, when Pope Paul VI issued a document called Poenitemini, which eased the rules about abstinence and fasting. The pope gave bishops, acting through their episcopal conferences, the right to establish the norms “they consider the most opportune and efficacious” in regards to fasting and abstinence.

Pope Paul didn’t intend to end fasting and abstinence; he wanted people to choose to fast and abstain, not because they had been told to do it but because they wanted to be more like Christ. The pope said that he believed Catholics should have greater latitude in determining their own penitential practices on Fridays.

That, no doubt, was what U.S. bishops felt when they relaxed the rules about fasting and on abstaining from meat on Fridays in November 1966. Echoing Pope Paul, they expressed hope that people would use Friday as a day for acts that imitated Christ’s self-sacrificing love: volunteering, visiting the sick and elderly, and teaching the young, all “with a special zeal born of a desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised and good works born of living faith.”

That didn’t necessarily happen. Today, many Catholics don’t know that Fridays are still days of penance — all year, not just during Lent.

So bishops are starting to change the rules, or at least to emphasize them.

In 2011, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, issued a rule that re-established “the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity.”

This year, several bishops in Australia want to follow suit. Auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliott of Melbourne, Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett of Lismore and Bishop Michael Kennedy of Armidale are among the prelates who said they would support re-establishment of year-round Friday abstinence.

Bishop Elliott told Catholic News Service that the Australian bishops’ 1985 decision to end Friday abstinence had been a “big pastoral and spiritual mistake.”

“Allowing people to work out some penance was idealistic and unrealistic,” Bishop Elliott added.

Are the bishops being tough? Or do they have a point? Without rules, is it harder to resist meat every Friday of the year? Do we remember to do some sacrificial act each Friday, without being told to do so?

How many of us still realize that “Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year,” as the U.S. bishops said in 1966. “For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the Passion of Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps getting back to that is the reason why bishops are today modifying abstinence practices. As Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said, they aren’t trying to be tough, but to help us “establish a shared practice, a shared habit, because habits that are carried out together are better learned and are stronger — we give each other mutual support.”


Sources: 1983 Code of Canon Law; Pope Paul VI’s Poenitemini at;;;; and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”


Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.  Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in April 2014. 



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