Can I eat meat on Friday?

Over the recent Christmas season I’ve been asked a few times whether it’s OK for Catholics to eat meat on Fridays “because it’s Christmas”. There isn’t one simple cut and dried answer to that question. How you resolve it depends on the approach to Friday abstinence that you adopt for yourself and your family. Ultimately it depends on where you choose to place the authority for determining your course of action – solely with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, with other people who you are called to evangelise, or with yourself as head of your domestic church.

The Law

You can choose to obey the rubrics of the Catholic Church rigidly. The Canon Law applicable to Western (Latin Rite) Catholics states:

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

The Bishops of England and Wales reinstated this as binding on Catholics in England and Wales in 2011, after a period of some years when Catholics had been free to choose their own Friday penance. Abstinence from meat is binding on all Catholics from their 14th birthday (Canon 1252), unless there is a medical reason why this would be unwise. Younger Catholics are not obliged to abstain but their parents should encourage the spirit of Friday abstinence in an age-appropriate way.

Solemnities are days of the highest rank in the Church’s calendar. Christmas Day and the 1 January celebration of Mary, Mother of God, rank as solemnities, as do all Holy Days of Obligation. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a solemnity which always falls on a Friday. Other saints’ days which are solemnities, such as the Birthday of St John the Baptist (24 June) or St Joseph’s Day (19 March) can fall on a Friday. Each diocese has its own liturgical calendar which might include some local solemnities, and the observance of the patron saint and the anniversary of dedication of an individual church could be solemnities in that parish, unless moved to the nearest Sunday.

The days between 26 and 31 December inclusive are celebrated with the rank of Feast, an important day with a Gloria at Mass – but not as high ranking as a solemnity. (The exact ranking is given at the end of the General Norms on the Liturgical Year.) The Friday of Easter Week (seven days after Good Friday) does, however, rank as a solemnity.

The Rigid Approach

It would be perfectly reasonable to choose to live rigidly according to the rubrics of the Church. Except in rare medical cases (e.g. anaemia, pregnancy), avoiding meat is not harmful or burdensome. Society generally respects those religions that avoid a particular meat absolutely (Muslims and Jews don’t eat pork, Hindus won’t eat beef). You can choose to live your life by declaring “I’m a Catholic and because of my religion, I don’t eat meat on Fridays except those days that the Church has waived.” If you are invited out on a Friday, there would be a strong moral obligation on you to make it clear to your hosts well in advance that this is the case, in order to avoid embarrassment.

The Responsive Approach

When Jesus sent his apostles out to preach, he told them to “eat what is set before them” (Luke 10:8) – though since they were sent to Jewish territory they could expect to be served kosher food. We are all called, by our baptism, to be missionary disciples – and that means building trust with people we want to share faith with. So it would be perfectly reasonable for a Catholic who chooses to practice strict Friday abstinence, when presented with circumstances beyond their control, to respond flexibly. If someone else has chosen to serve you meat, and refusing would give offence, it is quite reasonable to accept it with good grace.

Now here, we must recognise that two principles are in tension with one another. “Eating what is set before you” is as authentically Catholic as “obeying the law of the Church”. One Catholic might choose the witness of accepting hospitality while another might decide, in the context of a particular relationship, that it was more important to witness to keeping the discipline of the Church. This applies with less awkwardness when accepting a Friday night invitation in advance, allowing plenty of time to ask the host to avoid meat. There are sound moral principles behind both courses of action, and Catholics should avoid judging their co-religionists for reaching the opposite conclusion in a particular circumstance.

The Responsible Approach

When the Bishops of England and Wales restored Friday abstinence in 2011, the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference wrote a pastoral FAQ. That document is no longer available on the Bishops’ Conference website (but is preserved within this page at Birmingham’s cathedral); it included the following advice:

  • There is no requirement for us to eat fish instead of meat on a Friday. Our act of abstinence does not mean that we have to eat another particular type of food as the regular substitute for meat on a Friday.
  • If we are invited out for a meal on a Friday, then we should make the most of an opportunity to witness to our Catholic faith. If our friends and colleagues value us they will not be offended or upset if we tell them, ahead of time, that we do not eat meat on Fridays.
  • Our Bishops wish us to focus on the importance of observing penance as a regular and necessary part of our spiritual lives as a whole. If we make it our practice to do penance during the prescribed penitential days and seasons of the Church’s year, then failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin.

The deep question here, therefore, for each Catholic as an individual or as a leader in their domestic church, is how penance fits into the rhythm of their weekly life. Abstaining from meat was never meant to be a mere badge of identity (“We’re Catholics, that’s what we do on Fridays.”) Rather, each Catholic individual and family should pause on Friday and remember how Christ sacrificed his life for our salvation. The choice to abstain is a choice to experience a small hardship in solidarity and gratitude for Christ’s saving death. The very fact that a Catholic is asking ‘Do I have to abstain today?’ is a sign that the penance is noticeable. It should make a small but significant inconvenience to our daily life for it to be what it is meant to be.

The pastoral guidance says that “failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin”. For unplanned failures (absent-mindedly making a ham sandwich on Friday) this means that a careless Catholic should be reassured that they don’t have to rush to confession on Saturday; this lack of perfection is of the kind where an “Oops! Sorry Lord!” in one’s personal prayer is quite adequate rather than a sin requiring absolution. Does this, however, give Catholics latitude to plan to fail on the occasional Friday?

What is not negotiable is the need to observe Friday penance. The pastoral guidance was based on a clarification from the Vatican that missing an individual penitential act is not a grave sin, but failing to practice penance in the course of one’s Catholic life is.

As long as Friday penance is observed in some way, then the spirit of the law is being kept. Personally, I would view it as quite reasonable for a family celebrating some special occasion (wedding anniversary, birthday, patron saint’s day) on a particular Friday night to choose to have a simple ‘abstinence meal’ on Thursday night and keep their penance that week from dusk on Thursday until dusk on Friday – this would also be in keeping with the ancient tradition of ‘fasting before feasting’. Alternatively, a family which didn’t feel comfortable taking this decision on their own authority could ask their parish priest for a dispensation from the rule of abstinence on that occasion. But care must be taken so that a ‘special occasion’ doesn’t become ‘any occasion’. The place of Friday night at the start of the Western weekend makes it a prime time for social gatherings; too casual an approach to excusing oneself from the Friday discipline would be against the spirit of the law.

The Fridays after Christmas

In 2014, Boxing Day fell on a Friday. An unnamed spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales was asked whether Catholics could eat meat that day, and said that it was “contrary to the mentality of what an octave is to consider one of its days as penitential”.

Strictly speaking, the spokesman was misinterpreting liturgical law. In the current Liturgical Calendar, there are two octaves (special periods of eight days). The Easter Octave does indeed have the rank of a solemnity and its Friday cannot be considered penitential. The Christmas Octave, however is assigned a relatively low rank – below saints’ days which are mid-ranking ‘feasts’. (Loosely the word ‘feast’ can indicate any saint’s day but in technical church language a ‘feast’ is an observance ranking below a solemnity and above a memorial.) Friday penance is not waived on feasts, only on solemnities – so it is clearly not the intention of those who drafted that current liturgical calendar to designate the Christmas Octave as a day free from penance. On the contrary Canon 1250 designates ‘every Friday of the year’ as penitential, and that surely includes Fridays in Eastertide as well as the Christmas season.

In the pre-Vatican II liturgical calendars, Friday abstinence also applied during the Christmas octave – though in 1952 and 1958, explicit exemptions were granted by the Holy See when Boxing Day fell on a Friday.

It could be argued, however, that in popular understanding, most Catholics regard the days after Christmas as a season of celebration and aren’t aware of these liturgical niceties. There is also the practical problem of using up Christmas leftovers – Pope Francis has warned against a casual approach to throwing out waste food, both at personal and corporate levels. So I think it would be fair to say that a Catholic who generally practiced Friday penance but relaxed their discipline in the holiday season after Christmas wasn’t doing anything concerning. However, a Catholic concerned enough to have read this article as far as this point will probably want to plan their Christmas season to avoid meat, insofar as it’s under their own control, on Fridays which do not fall on 25 December or 1 January.

Abstinence as a lifestyle

Finally, we should acknowledge that for many Catholics, abstinence is more than a penitential discipline. Some Catholics, out of concern for cruelty to animals or the limited resources of the global ecosystem, have chosen not to eat meat at all. The Bishops of England & Wales have asked such Catholics to choose another suitable penitential act on Fridays. More recently, in promoting awareness of Pope Francis’ ecological teaching in Laudato Si, the bishops have asked the Catholics of England & Wales to consider reducing, if not eliminating, their consumption of meat (especially red meat) altogether. This, of course, is about how we choose an ethical lifestyle rather than observing a penitential discipline. But while we’re thinking about how eating meat interacts with our faith, it’s good to remember it here. Bon appetit!

Make Me Holy! Fast!

Homily at St Philip Evans for Ash Wednesday, 2014.

A single pea on a plateIt’s a fast day today.

That’s quite a rare thing, actually. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two official Fast Days in the Catholic Year. Every Friday is an abstinence day, but it’s only twice a year we’re asked to fast. I guess that makes today a bit special!

So why are we skimping on food today?

One kind of answer is that God tells us to fast. The first reading says “Proclaim a fast!” and in the Gospel Jesus tells us what to do “when we fast” – he’s taking it for granted that we will. But we can do better than that – fasting is more than blind obedience to a God who says we should fast and a Church which has picked today as the day. So why fast?

Are we trying to bargain with God? “Hey Lord, I’m doing something difficult for you, now it’s your turn to help me out!” – No. Prayer doesn’t work like that.

When we are grieving, we lose our appetites. “Not eating” can be a very natural expression of sorrow. So it makes sense to fast on Good Friday, when the Lord, whom we love, has been slain. But today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of our Lenten season of self-examination. Are we grieving for our own sinfulness? I doubt many of us feel that bad about ourselves!

And yet… sometimes human beings can get so concerned that they are not the person they should be, that they go to extreme measures of fasting – we call that anorexia. I have known families where a child has become anorexic, to the great distress of the parents. The roots are complex. Partly it’s about chasing an impossible body image, not helped by the magic which the media uses to beautify what we see on the screen and on the printed page. Partly it’s about a young person wanting to control things in a life where they cannot be fully in charge. Each case is unique. But as we choose to fast on this Ash Wednesday, let’s take a moment to pray for those families for whom fasting is not an option, but an affliction.

Anorexia takes to extremes what each one us is invited to recognise in a moderate way: not one of us is yet the person we are called to be. We are called to be holy – and a Catholic author called Matthew Kelly describes holiness like this: “Holiness is being the best version of yourself.” It’s being the version of ourselves that our loving Father in heaven is longing for us to be.

So how do we become holy? In Latin, the word for “holiness” is sacra and the verb that means “making” is facire. To make something holy is sacrum-facire – or in English, sacrifice!

If we want to be the best versions of ourselves for God, we are invited to sacrifice some pleasure which, in moderation, is good and enjoyable, for the sake of something better. This is what makes fasting part of our journey to the heart of God. It’s when we take seriously the prayer of Jesus, “Not my will, but yours be done.” When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm the easier half – God’s will be done. When we fast, we confront the difficult half – for God’s sake, I need to set aside what I want.

Fasting helps us distinguish the different kinds of “want” in our lives.There’s the thing that I desire – and the thing that I choose. “I want a large pizza!” But “I want to lose weight!” They are both desirable. But I want a pizza for the raw pleasure of the taste, while I want to lose weight for the more noble motive of my health. Which will I choose?

It’s very easy to give in to our basic emotions – hunger; anger; lust. It takes effort to say no to those things and choose instead what is best for us and for those we care about. If we are going to say NO to those things which are harmful, it helps to train ourselves to have the will-power to sometimes say NO also to moderate pleasures which are not harmful, yet not necessary. In this way, we show God we are serious about being the best version of ourselves, about being the person God is inviting us to be. When we sacrifice, we are made holy.

It’s a fast day today. That’s quite a rare thing – and Lent comes but once a year.

So what do you want? What will make you holy? What will make you the best version of yourself? Today, begin your journey back to God – begin with fasting, and throughout this Lent, set aside something good as a sign that you are serious about asking God for something better.

A Letter to My God-Daughter

Homily at St John Lloyd for the Friday of the 28th Week of Ordinary Time, Cycle II

I have three godchildren, and I remember them all especially in this month of October. One of my godsons was 2 earlier this month, and another will be 6 next week. I also have a god-daughter – or perhaps that isn’t quite the right term, because I was not godparent at her infant baptism, but chosen by her to be her sponsor when she was confirmed as a teenager. Now she is married with a daughter of her own, and today is the anniversary of her confirmation. When I read today’s Mass readings, I was inspired to write a letter, which I’d like to share with you all.

Dear Annie,

Today, the anniversary of your confirmation, I would like to remind you of who you are in God’s eyes. And this reminder comes not from me, but from the Letter to the Ephesians which the Church throughout the world reads at Mass on this day.

You are one of those precious souls of whom God was thinking at the very beginning of time. Before God created the Universe, in his mind he knew each and every one of his children who would become faithful members of His Church, and you were among them.

In the fullness of time you grew up in this world, and learned the Catholic faith from your family. Through a most mysterious gift, God enabled you to receive and believe his wonderful message…

  •  the message that there is an unending life, filled with joy, beyond this life of trials and challenges on Earth;
  • the message that we are invited to be part of this life, and the door was opened when Jesus Christ died upon the Cross;
  • the message that God offers the Gift of the Holy Spirit to each of his children on earth, to make you strong in the difficulties  which life brings, and to do extraordinary acts of love, in God’s name, to those who surround you.

Live faithful to God’s commands, and on the last day you will discover both the great glory you have won for God, and the immense joy with which God shares with all those who are filled with His Spirit. I pray that even now, God may share with you a foretaste of that joy.

Annie, on the day when you were sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, I became your sponsor, a godparent in Christ for your adult Christian life. Since then, there have been seasons of my life when I have prayed for you every day, and seasons when my remembering has been rather less regular, but I have never forgotten that out of all God’s people, you chose me to be guardian of your spiritual life.

Since we now live far apart from one another in these British Isles, it is through prayer above all that we now remain connected in Christ; but on this anniversary day I also wish to remind you of who you are, in Christ. He has chosen you; in your turn, be faithful and choose to worship and follow him each day.

May God bless you always.

Your Sponsor in Christ,

Gareth.

Now you who yourselves are godparents, what message do you wish to give your godchildren? And if you do not remember their patron saint’s day or the anniversary of their baptism or confirmation, who will?

The Most Dangerous Question

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Why, O why, would he ask such a question?

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The young man stood before Jesus, and acknowledged that he had indeed kept the commandment to love his neighbour. But something in his eyes, something in the way he lingered there expectantly, asked an unspoken question – “What more must I do to please God?”

We cannot know his motives from such a short exchange. Perhaps he was bothered by the religious enthusiasts in his community. These seemed to say that God expected more. So perhaps he wanted Jesus, the great Rabbi, to reassure him that what he was doing was enough?

Or did he have an inner itch, that ache called a Vocation, which means that something in the core of his being knew he was being called deeper? Was he unconsciously willing the Rabbi to challenge him, to put into words and make indisputable that invitation to go all the way with God?

Perhaps he sought reassurance. Or maybe he yearned to be challenged. But what we do know is that the reply he received was deeply challenging. Sell everything. Give all to the poor. Follow Me. Jesus, the living Word, had judged his secret emotions and thoughts, and spoke accordingly.

On my first full day as your parish priest, I was presented with a question no less challenging. Our Parish Council was beginning to plan our Christmas Dinner. It was explained to me that it had to be on a Friday, as this was the only night on which many people would be able to come. And being on a Friday, would it be OK to set aside the Friday abstinence from meat?

How your priest chooses to answer such a question will tell you a great deal about him.

I could start by pointing out that the bishops themselves have said the failing to abstain from meat on a particular Friday wouldn’t be a sin. I could suggest that a Christmas event was a good enough reason to excuse ourselves from abstaining. The letter of the law doesn’t absolutely require us to avoid meat.

But if I only give you that response, I’ll be sending you a subtle signal that the disciplines of our Church don’t matter very much, and certainly aren’t meant to put us to any trouble.

On the other hand, I could start by saying that since it’s a parish event, it’s something we should do together as a Catholic family following Catholic rules. It’s perfectly possible to have a decent meal on a Friday evening which doesn’t involve meat. I could stamp my authority on the parish by laying down the law, as parish priest, by decreeing that we are all going to follow the rules, and that’s that.

But if I did that, I’d be insisting on something more than the Church’s law requires, and making the decision on behalf of all of us that each one of us was going to abstain. Then your abstinence would not be a freely-offered sacrifice, but an imposition from me.

And there’s another problem. Jesus told us to fast in secret. We’re not supposed to show other people that we’re fasting. Should we hide our abstaining by choosing the turkey menu?

But I don’t think “other people” includes family. It’s almost impossible to hide from your own family the fact that you’re fasting. If I give up Jaffa Cakes for Lent, Mum knows within a week – the packet in the fridge suddenly doesn’t go down! So within our parish family, we should encourage one another in our Catholic practices of fasting and abstaining – but we don’t seek to trumpet what we are doing to a non-Catholic world.

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: WHY do our Church leaders ask us to abstain from meat on a Friday?

It was on a Friday that Jesus died upon the Cross. This followed an epic struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his mind, he knew very well what His Father was asking of him. But his human will first had to say YES, a total, unconditional YES to God. “Not what I want, Father, but what you want.” Only in this way could the humanity in Jesus be totally obedient to God’s will, and only through perfect obedience could the gates of Heaven be opened for us.

We, as followers of Jesus, are invited to remember this epic struggle each Friday, by making our own choice to be obedient. It’s a small sacrifice – a sacrifice of not eating meat, but more importantly, a sacrifice of our freedom to choose. Not obedience to a direct command from God, but obedience to the Church leaders God has placed over us. Yes, it’s irritating. Yes, it does restrict our social choices – especially on a Friday night. If we choose to make the sacrifice and avoid meat, we have made a small but significant offering to God – and we have shaped our own personality away from self-will.

Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because I want to train myself to be a person who lives for God’s will, not to satisfy my own desires.

Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because on this day God saved the world by allowing his own flesh to be tortured and killed.

Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because I choose to remember that it was on a Friday that Jesus was put to death following the most important decision ever made by a human will.

But back the the question at hand – as a parish, should we abstain from meat on the Friday of our Christmas meal, a Friday which occurs in Advent, the season of patient waiting? I could have made the decision for all of us as a parish, and insisted that turkey stays off the menu. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do something much more terrifying! I’m going to remind you that each one of you is an adult Christian with the power to make a sacrifice out of love for God – and your sacrifice ONLY has value if it is made freely.

I suspect if we could ask Jesus directly what we should do, he wouldn’t have given us a straight answer; he’d have told a story. So here’s a true story.

A few years ago, an Archbishop and a Papal Nuncio – Vatican Ambassador – were invited to a civic dinner which happened to fall on Ash Wednesday. The Nuncio suggested that the Archbishop could exempt him from the fasting rules, since the dinner was in the Archbishop’s diocese. In return, the Nuncio could use his special authority from the Pope to exempt the Archbishop.

On the day of the meal, the Archbishop, who had put in a special request for the non-meat option, found himself served with a rather poor quality salad while all the surrounding diners were served lamb.

The Nuncio enjoyed the roast dinner.

Which of the two representatives of Christ chose the course of action more pleasing to God?

As for me, on December 14th, I’ll be having the fish.