Spiritual disciplines build community

fishfry2009_logoBecause politics is religion to many reporters, far too many religion stories are seen through that prism. If you want coverage and you’re not embroiled in some hot-button issue or campaigning for some government action one way or another, you’re probably not going to get any.

That’s the way media coverage works, but it’s a shame. Think of how much of the life of religious communities plays out far away from anything political.

Growing up, my congregation used to always gather for soup suppers before our Advent and Lenten worship. It was just one of those things that bonded the community and brought us closer together. My Dad would make his world-class potato soup or autumn stew and various parishioners would show off their comfort food specialties.

Of course, on Fridays during Lent, we’d head up to the Roman Catholic Church in town for their fish fry. Tons of people who weren’t Catholic would come because the Knights of Columbus had some kind of secret seasoning in the batter that everyone craved. I’m glad to see it’s still going on.

Fish fry traditions exist in Catholic parishes across the country. Other groups have similar traditions. And yet like so many annual but non-political events, we never seem to hear about them.

So I was delighted to read this Associated Press story about how fish fries bolster Catholic unity during Lent:

Kids with skateboards and men with canes share tables. Warnings that “fish have bones” are plastered all over the walls. There are jokes, speeches — and one complaint that the lemonade is too weak.

Scenes like this one in a Denver suburb play out each Friday during Lent under the fluorescent glow of a thousand Catholic parish halls. The old-fashioned Lenten fish fry soldiers on, giving Catholics an opportunity to observe their meatless Friday while bolstering their sense of community.

To a number of Catholics, the fish fry is also something more: a timeworn Catholic tradition that provides a safe haven from divides that have long roiled the U.S. church, a place where traditionalist Catholics, progressive Catholics and everyone in between can sit peacefully at the same plastic tablecloth.

We see so many stories about the bitter divides in religious communities over those issues near and dear to parishioners and clergy but we never seem to get much about what it’s like to worship together or just exist in community together with people with whom you disagree. The fact is that, contrary to the image painted by many in the media, churchgoers agree on much more than they disagree on.

Anyway, the story is typically great Eric Gorski material. He takes readers through the history of traditions (such as saying the rosary and Eucharistic adoration) and how they shrank after the Second Vatican Council.

“There are people who are wondering whether or not some important things have sort of slipped away and could be brought forth,” said James Davidson, a Purdue University sociologist and expert in American Catholic observance. “Not just because they are old, traditional and sort of conservative. But because they at some point mattered to people and could be a sources of strengthening Catholic identity in today’s world.”

The story provides examples and corroboration of the trend. And it shows that while conservatives and traditionalists kept the practices since the 1960s, many Catholic thinkers on the left are promoting them as well.

Back to the first parish mentioned, the story even shows how the fish fry has turned into something of a fish bake with an added option of baked mahi-mahi for fasters.

Just a nice story that covers some trends in Catholic parishes across the country. It would be nice to see more of these.

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  • Chris B

    It’s a wonderful unifier for those of us who do the cooking too. I worked one of the basket fryers at my latest parish fish fry- along with a retired prison guard, a cardiologist, and a college student on spring break. “Celebrate Diversity” indeed.

  • TyKo

    It’s nice to read about how universal a tradition this is among parishes nationwide. Mollie’s point about how fish fries are not just a Catholic thing is salient too. My small Midwestern hometown has a population historically split between Roman Catholics and LCMS Lutherans like me & Mollie. (The population is less than 8000, but both my home church and the local Catholic parish have over 2000 members.) The Catholic church and school hosts a fish fry on 4 of the 6 Fridays in Lent, and on the other 2, my own Lutheran church and school hosts one! The Knights of Columbus and the local Sportsman’s Club also host weekly or regular fish fries during Lent, and they’re all crowded. I grew up in an extended family split between Lutherans and Catholics, but everybody enjoyed eating fish on Fridays in March!

  • Jerry

    Cleaning up after celebrations can also be fun with shared comradery.

  • FW Ken

    The youth group does our fish frys, using fish a couple of guys catch in the Gulf of Mexico as long as it lasts. By the 3rd week, they are stretching supplies with chilaquiles and fish tacos/tostados. My favorite, though was the year St. Patrick’s fell on Friday and we had corned beef and cabbage… with the bishop’s permission of course. :-)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    We can get publicity releases published in the local media about upcoming events at our Catholic parish with no problem. But, when we have a guest religious speaker, even of national or international status–forget about getting any news coverage of the event itself. This, even though, speakers of a similar public fame profile or status (union leaders, entertainers, out-of-state pols, etc.) will find their visit and words frequently making front page news locally- especially since it is rare for people of note to come to our city instead of nearby Boston. Someone once said we should promise some violence or a few anti-demonstrators, then reporters will show up.

  • http://tikkun.org Lauren

    Viewing politics as the journalist’s religion brings up questions about the myopic scope of mainstream reporting, but it also could nudge us towards reconsidering how we envision the boundaries of religion and politics altogether. Maybe events like community dinners which seem non-political can be seen as political even if they cut across political/ideological commitments and are not explicitly political. Congregational gatherings that foster community and embody a conviction that everyone is sacred could be making a subtly political statement in the context of a world whose politics do not acknowledge the necessity of interpersonal connection and spiritual nourishment. Such events could nudge us toward reconsidering what is meant by ‘political’ altogether.


  • http://suburbanbanshee.wordpress.com Maureen

    Correction: Catholics are still expected to either abstain from meat on EVERY Friday (except certain feastdays) or in the US, do something that’s a penitential practice EVERY week, preferably on every Friday. (Allowing the penitential practice thing was a special indult granted to the US. Most places don’t have it.)

    Journalists helped spread this false information about “no more fish on Fridays” back in the sixties, so they should stop spreading it now.

  • http://oceanorchestra.vox.com derek

    As cozy a tradition as fish fries are, to me it’s a little odd that Lent would lend itself so easily to such festive occasions. A sense of community can be bolstered in any number of ways year round, but ancient Christian tradition casts Lent – of all times in the year – as the most inward-looking and, if you will, somber. But it’s a bright sadness.

  • Jimmy Mac

    In my small midwestern hometown (about 2,000 now, 1,100 when I lived there) our variation on the fish fry was the Thanksgiving dinner. The 3 churches in town (RC, LCMS and Methodist) coordinated their dinners so as to not interfere with the others’ and to ensure that the members of the other churches could … and would … attend. It was a very early form of local ecumenicism, at least the food variety. They all made money and kept the contacts between faiths active. The only point of concern was the fact that each church had members who used to belong to one of the other. Family tensions could be sensed, but not for long.