The spirit of penance

The great thing about the internet is that you have access to all kinds of information. Think of all the medical sites available allowing you to research in great depth all your current symptoms – real or perceived. My sisters and many of my cousins are medical professionals. You can imagine how thrilled they are to have a conversation start, “I was reading on WebMD….”In chatting with one of the family a while ago, they mentioned that I was lucky to not have a priestly version of that dynamic. I agreed, but its not true. There are plenty of people who are happy to cite snippets of Canon Law or the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). What is common is that are inevitably members of some other parish and want to engage you in an email exchange. Early in my priesthood I would engage. Later on I would reply, “great inquiry, you should take it up with you pastor.”  Now I just read and delete.

A recent email offered that we were leading the people astray by letting everyone assume that meatless Fridays had been done away with by Vatican II except for Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent, and especially Good Friday. The email cited Canon 1251 of the Code of Canon Law. The email did not include the canon text, but here it is: “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.”  And if one continues to read the Code, here is 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.”

The US Catholic Bishops did just that in 1966, when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence.” It maintained the obligation to abstain from meat during Lent, but simply encouraged the faithful to maintain the traditional Friday abstinence outside of Lent.

It argued that “the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most,” and “to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.” As a result, through “​​other forms of penitential witness,” Friday was to be treated as “a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.”

Within the Lenten Season, the current practice of abstinence make the penitential nature of Lenten Fridays more clear. But what about the other Fridays of the year?

The Bishops wrote:

21. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died,urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.

22. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.

23. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. 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.

24. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.

Something to consider in your ongoing spiritual journey.

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