Up Front and Personal

Fried Fish and the Joy of Penance

By Father Michael Rennier

Lent is a time for prayer, penance and piling mounds of spaghetti on fried fish. Listen, I’m as surprised to have written that sentence as you may be to have read it. The Catholic Fish Fry is a unique cultural phenomenon, and in particular the St. Louis Catholic Fish Fry is without compare. When I first encountered it, I quickly realized how out of my depth I am. Sure, I have a Master of Divinity and can read Greek, but at Fish Fry, I’m surrounded by expert-level Catholics who continue to school me on the art of how to do Lent right.

The Fish Fry is a celebration of community solidarity, and to do it right is a delicate act. It’s the season of fasting, but you still have your choice of a Bud Light or sweet wine in a plastic cup. Maybe a bit of gooey butter cake won’t be too much? Definitely pair the fried — don’t even say the word “baked” or you’ll get chased out of the gym — fish with spaghetti; after all, we’re not barbarians.

Oh, and hey, over by the takeout line is the Men’s Club selling raffle tickets. The priest is usually posted up by the drink station or the dessert table and amiably chats with parishioners. Kids are hiding under the bleachers and the parking lot is mayhem. This is Catholicism, and I love it.

There’s something really amazing about people who are so serious about penance that they turn it into a celebration. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that Christians “fast for joy,” while others “feast for misery.” It makes sense. If I didn’t know the love of God, I would be free to stuff my face with burgers every Friday without a hint of Catholic guilt, but the feast would be joyless. On the other hand, as a Catholic who is fed by the Body and Blood of God himself, it’s quite easy to turn even a deprivation such as meatless Fridays into a joyous penance.

In the depth of our hearts, we’re getting ready for something big to happen, and Lent is serious, but the miracle about to happen on Easter is all about the victory of God over sin and death. It’s when we are made most aware of the depth of our sin that our joy over God’s forgiveness becomes most intense.

Chesterton says that St. Francis of Assisi was famously penitential but certainly not gloomy. His humility unhorsed him and flung him into fasting and penance as if he were entering a battle. He loved it more than most men love gold.

There are a few things I want to change this Lent. Specifically, I want to avoid rookie mistakes like showing up too late and finding out that all the mac and cheese is gone. May your penance be serious this Lent, and may it be joyful.

Father Rennier is a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Mo. He was ordained under the Pastoral Provision for the reception of former Anglican ministers into the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.

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