Resurrecting meatless Fridays

November 14, 1997|By Joseph Gallagher

AT THEIR annual meeting last week, the U.S. Catholic bishops agreed to look into the idea of promoting Fridays as days of fast and abstinence. (Abstinence pertains to what sort of food you eat; fasting, to how much you eat.)

In many religions, the occasional limiting of the consumption of food is a devout practice. Muslims are unique in observing a whole month (Ramadan) of strict daylight fasting.

In ancient Judaism, certain foods were always forbidden (e.g. pork). The only official time of fasting was the Day of Atonement. Elsewhere, fasting was an adhoc event connected with mourning and/or repentance, a serious crisis or especially urgent prayer. After the destruction of the Temple in 587 B.C., Jews began to mark the anniversary with fasting. But the self-control motive is absent from the Jewish scripture.

Pharisees were a major Jewish sect at the time of Christ. The Gospels give an overly negative impression of their piety. They fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. Like all religious people, they had temptations to keep their piety superficial or to make a show of it.

Jesus began his ministry with a 40-day fast in the desert, but otherwise showed little concern with the practice. Indeed, both he and his disciples were criticized for their laxness in this matter. Jesus did say that his disciples would fast after he had left them, but that they should hide the fact and put on a happy face.

Jesus died on what has come to be called Good Friday in English. So, for his disciples, Friday became the day of choice for any sympathetic bodily pain such as fasting. But this good work was a matter of gratitude for salvation received, not a means to salvation.

Through the centuries, in the Roman Catholic church, the Friday fast evolved into the obligation to abstain from meat ''under pain of serious sin.'' Though the practice of fish on Friday became a badge of Catholic identity, it created all sorts of problems. Some people prefer fish, so how is it a penance? And how much meat is a serious sin? How about an hors d'oeuvre or soup made from meat?

It could be hell for scrupulous souls, and a nightmare for hostesses. (Back in the '30s, after a wrangle with the Baltimore Archdiocese, editors of The Sun and the Evening Sun invited local Catholic officials to a reconciling lunch. It was a Friday and meat was served.)

Second Vatican Council

Around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Catholic leaders began to remember more sharply that Jesus came to liberate us from complicated rules like the dietary parts of the Mosaic Law. Besides, good works don't save. St. Paul had heated arguments with St. Peter on that very subject.

In addition, the exemptions had become ridiculous. All of Spain was excused from the practice by the pope for its part in defeating the Muslims at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). What if you were visiting Spain, or were a Spaniard away from home? Would breaking the rule send you to hell as fast as murder or

fornication?

In 1966, Pope Paul VI in essence made the choice of how they would perform penance optional. No doubt many of us Catholics neglect the duty of working for self-control so that we become readier agents of the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the bishops will come to some consensus that is not open to the flaws of the old way.

As for a badge of identity, how about this one: ''By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.'' Maybe that ecumenically Christian badge is good enough in these latter days.

The Rev. Joseph Gallagher is a retired priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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