Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
I hope this Lent is well underway in your life, and that the time we are given has offered opportunities for you to do some serious work on turning back to God, in whatever way you might need that to happen. Every year there are those who are troubled by slow starts, or early failings in the plans they had made for Lent: if that is you, don’t give up. There is still time: start again, maybe with something you can do more realistically. It is my experience that, if people fail in their Lenten resolutions, it is most often because they find themselves unable or unwilling to take something away from their regular routine, usually something to eat or drink, or a form of entertainment. Maybe you realize that it just isn’t realistic at this point in your life to give up Brussels sprouts? Try something else. Or, better, rather than giving up something, make a resolution to do something positive, maybe something that isn’t so focused on self.
I think this was the spirit of the Church when she made changes to the regular rule for Fridays. Most people are still aware that Fridays in Lent (and Ash Wednesday) are days that we must abstain from meat in our diets. But most people aren’t aware any more that the dietary discipline wasn’t simply done away with—it is still very much in force—but the suggestion was made by the Church 50 years ago that we consider a corporal or spiritual work of mercy instead (a “pious or charitable act”), in place of the dietary restriction. This is for every other Friday of the year: we are expected to do one of these instead of abstaining from meat, if we choose to eat meat. Local bishops’ conferences (our USCCB, for example) were left with the role of teaching people about this.
It was one of those things that seemed to “go away” and everyone just said, “Well, that’s Vatican II…” though this discipline wasn’t actually dealt with in the documents of the Council at all, but by a 1966 Apostolic Constitution by Blessed Pope Paul VI. Fridays are still, very much, days of penance for Catholics, and we should take it
seriously. Many simply decide to continue to eat fish instead, though I believe that all-you-can-eat seafood platters don’t actually work according to the spirit of the law. And what about vegetarians? Are they penitential by nature? It is true, in past generations meat was considered much more of a luxury item—as it would be in many
of the poorer parts of the world today—then this sort of dietary discipline makes more sense.
So here are the classic substitutes for meat on Fridays. It gives new life to the whole idea of parish ministry and community values: these are not just nice things to do, they are required:
C O R P O R A L W O R K S O F M E R C Y
1. To feed the hungry.
2. To give drink to the thirsty.
3. To clothe the naked.
4. To shelter the homeless.
5. To visit the sick.
6. To visit the imprisoned.
7. To bury the dead.
S P I R I T U A L W O R K S O F M E R C Y
1. To instruct the ignorant.
2. To counsel the doubtful.
3. To admonish sinners.
4. To bear wrongs patiently.
5. To forgive offenses willingly.
6. To comfort the afflicted.
7. To pray for the living and the dead
You can’t help but notice, in this extraordinary year of mercy with our parish theme, “…Sowing seeds of Mercy,” that we have meaningful work to do. In the long run, you might be healthier for not eating that hamburger, and you might really enjoy lobster and it could still be on the menu, but wouldn’t you—and, in turn, others—be much more likely to be touched by the life of Jesus if we made mercy our sacrifice of praise? No meat every Friday? Or mercy? You decide.
God bless you.