Day 28 of the 54-Day Novena: Joyful Mysteries in Thanksgiving

Friday Abstinence Also Required Outside of Lent

Catholic Apologetics #32

One of the most commonly known perceptions of Catholics is our custom of eating fish on Fridays. Yet, few non-Catholics understand this practice at all. And the sad truth is that nowadays many Catholics fail to properly observe this practice because they don’t realize that abstinence from meat is actually required on all Fridays throughout the year – not just during Lent.

Let’s take a few minutes to understand this practice and, going forward, follow it each and every Friday of the year (with only a few exceptions, as will be explained later).

Catholics observe Fridays as a required day of penance year-round in acknowledgement of the debt we owe to Our Lord for the cruel and barbaric death that He endured on Good Friday for our salvation. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “From the dawn of Christianity, Friday has been signalized as an abstinence day … the ‘Teaching of the Apostles’ (viii), Clement of Alexandria (Stromata VI.75), and Tertullian (On Fasting 14) make explicit mention of this practice.” This same source explains that “the law of abstinence embodies a serious obligation whose transgression, objectively considered, ordinarily involves a mortal sin.”

The Code of Canon Law of the Church stipulates the requirements on Catholics for how this penance is to be observed. The following is quoted from the current (1983) Code of Canon Law:

Can. 1249 All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which the following canons prescribe.

Can. 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. [emphasis added]

Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

Can. 1253 The Episcopal Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

And thus, Catholics are required (unless unable to do so due to illness) to not only abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent but also on all Fridays throughout the year unless the Bishops Conference of that area allows (after having petitioned the Pope and being granted permission for) an alternative penance to be performed. Many faithful Catholics, however, choose simply to follow the tradition of no meat on Fridays year-round instead of substituting an alternative. This is in line with Catholic Tradition and the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which did not allow an alternative penance. It also provides for a united common action by all Catholics – all over the world and throughout the centuries – as opposed to each individual personally selecting, on every given Friday, which penance to do from the Bishops Conference ‘approved list.’ If you cannot resist having meat on Friday, how can you possibly resist more insidious assaults from the devil?

In Lent there is no substituting allowed. You also cannot transfer your abstinence from Friday to a different day. It must take place on Friday – because Christ died on Friday!

As clearly stipulated in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, this law was – and still is – binding on all Catholics except when Friday falls on a Holy Day of Obligation, in which case the requirement for abstinence is abrogated for that day. An easy way to remember this: If we are bound under the pain of mortal sin to assist at Mass then we are not obligated to fast or abstain.

As an additional exception for Catholics in the United States, Pope Pius XII issued an indult abrogating the Friday abstinence on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the so-called “turkey indult.” [Editor’s Note: This is an indult, not an obligation. In other words, Catholics in the USA may still choose to abstain from meat on the Friday following Thanksgiving. It would surely be a pleasing sacrifice to Our Lord if we gave up eating those delicious turkey leftovers that day out of love for Him and in thanksgiving for His Sacrifice. It is still a Friday though, so Catholics are obliged to do penance. The indult from 1941 specifically mentions that bishops should “exhort the faithful by way of compensation to make some offering, especially in favor of the poor.”]

Finally, the year-round Friday abstinence can also be a means of making fitting reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At Lourdes and at Fatima, the message we received from Heaven included the phrase “Penance! Penance! Penance!” This word thrice repeated by Our Lady (or the angel of Fatima) shows how important it is for us to be doing penance in our time. Yet oddly enough, all the Church’s disciplines and traditions regarding penance seem to have been mitigated, forgotten, or altogether abrogated. The dramatic rise in sin and evil present all around us, especially its social and legal acceptance, compels us to do even more penance. So why are so many looking for reasons to do less penance?

Abstaining from meat on Friday is a simple penance we can all do. Why not offer it up as reparation to console the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts? If we make it such an Act of Love, then we will want to make this small sacrifice, as opposed to trying to avoid penance by seeking indults, exceptions, or mitigated options. We can be inspired by the example of the small children – St. Francisco, St. Jacinta, and Sr. Lucia – who willingly did many penances to help save souls, including not eating meat on Friday.

We can be little ‘apostles of Fatima’ by informing others about the importance of Friday abstinence and that penance on Friday is required of all Catholics – it is not optional.

Moreover, the “signs of the times” clearly indicate that more, not less, penance is required of all faithful Catholics. How much do we love Our Lord and Savior? How much do we love our Blessed Mother? What penances can we offer to show our love?


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