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Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of the forty day period known as Lent. Lent is distinguished by its notably somber tone. For example, flowers are removed from Church and the usual Alleluias are no longer sung. For Catholics, it also means a time of fasting, abstinence, penitence, and sacrifice. For the next two weeks I’ll take a look at the customs and traditions of this season leading up to the great celebration that is Easter.
If you have a question, send me an email and I’ll do my best to get an answer.
Question: Why don’t Catholics eat meat on Fridays during Lent?
Answer: The practice of refraining from the consumption of meat by Catholics is known as abstinence and is an old and venerable tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas gives the three purposes of fasting and abstaining: “in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh…that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things…and in order to satisfy for sins.”
In ages past, the consumption of meat was not as frequent as today and celebrations were marked with meat-filled meals. Because Jesus was crucified on a Friday, for Christians, this day has always regarded as a penitential day marked by the abstention from consuming flesh.
Prior to reforms in the Church in the 1960s, Catholics were expected to refrain from consuming meat on all Fridays throughout the year and in advance of certain holy days. However, in 1966, Pope Paul VI limited the number of days that required fasting and abstinence and allowed local bishops to modify certain details. In the U.S. it is still expected that all Fridays are day observed with abstinence, but one may be permitted to replace abstaining from meat with another form or penitence or by performing some spiritual act. During Lent, which is the most penitential season of the year, the obligation to abstain from meat may not be substituted.
It is common practice for Catholics to substitute fish for meat in their Friday meals. In Islam and Judaism, as well as Christianity, fish is not regarded as meat, thus the popular custom of fish fries throughout Lent.
Some interesting facts about meatless Fridays:
- The Church’s understanding of what constitutes “meat” is somewhat broad and doesn’t correlate well with taxonomy. St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in his Summa Theologica describes the animals whose flesh is not permissible to consume as those “animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and … those that walk on the earth.”
- As a result of this identification of “meat” based upon its behavioral characteristics, all manner of animals, including shellfish, beavers, and alligators, are classified as “fish” for the purposes of dietary laws.
- Pope Pius XII granted American Catholics a dispensation from abstinence on the Friday after Thanksgiving to allow them to consume the leftovers from the day before.
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