by Effie Caldarola
Recently it was announced that the Catholic bishops of England and Wales are bringing back meatless Fridays as a form of penance in their dioceses.
I have mixed feelings about this no doubt well-meaning effort to reintroduce penance into the lives of Catholics.
Years ago, when the long-standing practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays was abandoned, the obvious reason was that, as a form of penance, it simply wasn’t that for most of us.
On those long-ago Fridays, Mom’s tuna casserole was a highlight of my week. We weren’t a rich family, so we didn’t indulge in lobster, but my brothers and I fought for our share of fishsticks.
If anything, in the intervening years, going meatless has become even less sacrificial. With an apology to my Midwestern roots, I haven’t eaten beef in years, and as a quasi-vegetarian, if I get a chance to visit a fine restaurant, I invariably indulge in the seafood menu.
I think this is increasingly true for many younger Catholics. But even if you’re a quarter-pounder fan, it’s hardly a penance to select from a different menu once a week.
But, of course, the bishops aren’t thinking in meat/meatless terms. What they’re concerned about, hopefully, is the abandonment of penance on Fridays.
What I think that a huge number of Catholics don’t realize is that, when meatless Fridays were eliminated, the idea was that Fridays would still be a day of penance; we as individuals would select not crab legs but what was truly sacrificial for us.
Perhaps we were poorly catechized on that concept. Have you ever heard it addressed in a homily?
If not, that’s too bad, because the elimination of meatless Fridays was an affirmation of Catholics as adults, grown-ups who could choose their own form of selflessness, of personal sacrifice, of acknowledging how to witness to Christ on the day of His crucifixion.
Unfortunately, it became a concept that was allowed to fade away.
Perhaps the message of sacrificial Fridays has been lost in part because most Catholics saw meatless Fridays not as penance to begin with, but as a symbol of Catholic “otherness,” a mark of our difference from the culture.
And that’s what worries me about attempts to reintroduce this concept of “deprivation.” If we are promoting it in an attempt to introduce “otherness,” a sign of cultural Catholicism, and not mainly to encourage sacrifice, we’re off course.
As Catholics, we should be seen as radically different by our acts of love in the public arena and in our private lives. We should be seen as followers of Jesus by our sacrificial stewardship, supporting the poor, working for a better world.
Choosing shrimp over flank steak just doesn’t do the trick.
Effie Calderola writes a syndicated column for Catholic News Service.