Recently, the question of Friday penance came up in my family. The question is: Are Fridays still days of penance for Catholics? As most know, prior to the reforms of Vatican II, all Catholics were obliged to abstain from eating meat on every Friday of the year. After Vatican II, Canon Law left this obligation up to the episcopal conferences of each nation. In the United States, the Catholic bishops emphasized the obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent and on Good Friday and, while removing the obligation to abstain from meat on other Fridays, encouraged Catholics to do some form of penance on every Friday, with a preference for abstaining from meat.
I’ve included above a link to the 1966 statement of the U. S. bishops on the matter, as well as an article by Jimmy Akin discussing the subject. For those who don’t know him, Akin is a layman who is a great resource on all things Catholic.
So, what’s the bottom line?
All Catholics are obliged to do penance. Penance is not an option, and it’s not limited to the penance the priest gives us when we go to Confession. Our Lady of Fatima, the 100th anniversary of who’s appearances to the children of Portugal we celebrate this year, placed a great emphasis on the need for penance. In doing penance, we unite our sacrifice with that of Christ for the sake of the whole Church and the world. Does anyone really think we’re doing enough penance and don’t need to do more? As the bishops say, since none can claim freedom from sin, none can claim an exemption from the need to do penance.
All Fridays remain a day of penance. I like the U. S. bishops’ notion in the 1966 statement that each Friday is to be like a little Lent in preparation for the Easter of each Sunday. That helps me understand the importance of Friday as a day of penance.
All Catholics are obliged to abstain from meat on prescribed days of abstinence. Those days are Ash Wednesday, all Fridays of Lent, and Good Friday. What does that mean? In simplest terms, if you purposefully fail to abstain from meat on these days, it is a sin and you have to go to Confession.
All Catholics in the United States are urged to do penance on every Friday of the year. The bishops strongly prefer abstaining from meat on these Fridays, but other forms of penance can now be substituted from abstaining from meat. Some suggestions for alternate penances are: praying a rosary, reading the Bible, reading some other spiritual reading such as from the lives of the saints or a spiritual classic, doing acts of charity, making a financial sacrifice, abstaining from TV or social media. What does this mean? In simplest terms, if you purposefully fail to do penance on the other Fridays of the year outside of Lent, it’s not a sin and you don’t have to go to Confession. But, why would any Catholic who loves Jesus not want to do penance, especially on that day that is traditionally set aside for doing so because it commemorates His sacrifice on the cross?
This isn’t intended as a guilt trip. But, think about it. We have an obligation to care for our children. Is anyone motivated to do so out of a sense of guilt? No. Ordinarily, we care for our children out of a sense of love and the duty love demands of us. In our culture, the idea of duty, responsibility, carrying out the obligations that love demands of us, all of these are frowned upon for some reason. We want to feel entirely free in our love for others. We convince ourselves that, if it isn’t freely given, it isn’t love. Of course, love must be freely given. But, real, genuine love freely given makes demands of us, and there’s no getting around that. There really ought to be no wanting to get around that. “Love is a harsh and dreadful thing,” Servant of God Dorothy Day said, “but it is the only answer.” We freely love our children, our spouses, and that love makes demands of us, demands that we are only too happy to fulfill because that’s what love inspires in us: a desire to sacrifice for the sake of the other, to put others ahead of ourselves.
We love Christ. We love our brothers and sisters in Christ. This love demands of us that we make sacrifices, that we put Christ and our brothers and sisters in Christ ahead of us. Penance is one way we can do that.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.