Rethinking Meatless Fridays

Over at First Things, today, I note that the bishops of England and Wales are re-introducing the notion of the Friday Fast — which actually never went away, but that is not how Catholics, or the world, came to understand things “in the Spirit of Vatican II.” Specifically, the bishops are looking to re-establish meatless Fridays.

Wrapped as I am in nostalgia, I rejoiced to read this. My mother was such a dreadful cook that our Fridays, with or without meat, were as penitential as any other day of the week, but as a child I had always liked the cultural commonality that set Fridays aside and made them feel oddly, wonderfully safe and homey. In our working-class neighborhood the Sunday dinners might vary widely from roast beef to braciola, but on Fridays we were all taking cozily meatless meals. If my mother was heating up cans of tuna and cream of mushroom soup, my neighbors were having home-made pizza or scrambled eggs.

There was something comforting about these less-than-formal suppers where the modesty of the meal meant that food became incidental to the companionship and conversation which was brought to the fore. If company was coming, all the better—the sense of unity was broadened as our guest dug into the same simple fare as the rest of us.

Within a culture as poorly catechized as our own, though, most Catholics are not even aware that they have always been expected to sacrifice something of a Friday. For these people nostalgia alone may not be enough to re-establish obedience to the Friday Fast. I was a grown woman before a priest told me that the lifting of the Friday ban on meat was not—as I had come to think of it—the equivalent of a doctrinal tooth extraction that replaced something with nothing and left a gaping hole in my understanding. Who knew that the Council’s intent was to free the faithful to choose their own, more personally meaningful, sacrifice in remembrance of Good Friday?

This is about more than being retrograde; it is an attempt to re-ignite a sense of Catholic identity and unity, built around a rather small but culturally powerful obedience. I think it’s pretty interesting, and perhaps even bold. Perhaps if the ideas of the Second Vatican Council had been well-taught by the bishops and pastors, rather than being left for the media to frame and define, this wouldn’t be necessary, today, but sadly it is.

Show of hands — how many who remember meatless Fridays were ever taught that, while the specific sacrifice on meat had been lifted — we were still supposed to embrace some sort of sacrifice on Friday?

Or did you, like me, discover this sometime in your adulthood, and then struggle to re-adopt the sacrificial practice into your increasingly secular-minded week, with uneven results?

And what do you think about this notion of a small common obedience, or do you — like some — find the very word “obedience” to be repellent?

Read the whole thing, and I hope you’ll comment. The tread at First Things is already pretty interesting.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Jordan Henderson

    I’m a convert, in 2007, so don’t “remember” meatless Fridays. I did learn about the Friday fast before conversion, almost certainly from the Internet.

    I’m not sure about how to feel about this. Ever since losing some weight some years ago, I don’t eat much red meat anyway and I don’t have a problem going vegetarian or having some Fish on Firday. The Friday Fast is so easy for me that going meatless is just about the same as going out for a Lobster dinner on Friday night.

    I’d have a much harder time really living up to the high standards found in these documents:

    If Catholics like me were really impressed with the real spirit of Friday, our spiritual lives would be enhanced.

    I do try, but I usually fail to reach the standard, at least my conscience is convicting me that I’m not.

    As an aside, I will point out that those two documents are pretty clear teaching from the USCCB. You hear a lot of complaints about how “the Bishops” aren’t setting out clear standards, but if you look for them, you’ll find them. If you don’t look for them, I doubt you would follow them even if you knew about them.

    On the other hand, even the small practice of the Friday Fast helps to remind me which I might miss entirely without it.

  • Kris, in New England

    As a very new convert – Easter Vigil 2011! – the only memory I have of meatless Fridays is from the observances of friends while growing up.

    This is something I may try to embrace in my new faith; I’m embracing new traditions all over the place and this would be one I would welcome and enjoy.

  • Vince

    I haven’t eaten meat on Friday’s for about 11 years now. (Except once because I forgot and I’m pretty sure there must have been a Christmas in there where I ate meat) It has been a great conversation starter to talk to people about Catholicism. People like to treat themselves to burgers on Fridays, or there are weddings, cookouts, or other celebratory events. When I skip the meat, people ask me about it or go out of their way to offer. I tell them why I don’t eat meat and they suddenly think of their grandparents or start discussing religion. The most interesting thing is that it has helped me form bonds with Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. They are in the same boat and we often end up as Friday lunch buddies, even if we work in different areas of the company. It’s led to lots of great opportunities to talk to people about the Catholic Church.

  • Brother Seamus

    Yeah, during Lent, my family also pushed beyond just sacrificing meat, but also doing away with other personal extravagances. Our extended family have been going meatless on all Fridays for a couple years now, as people are looking beyond the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ pap we’d been raised on.

  • Ruth Gracey

    I, like you, did not know about the option of performing a personal sacrifice of some kind on Fridays until I was an adult. Now that I home school two of my children I have learned that many people choose to go to mass on Fridays, and I try to do that, but also like you, my efforts are uneven and end up making me feel guilty about my lack of obedience or even what I feel is an inability to truly make a small sacrifice for others or HIM. However, I’m a work in progress and He has a plan for me. I will embrace this, I think, as a good way to remember Him in my busy week and as a talking point for the family over our supper. We already eat almost totally vegetarian, but we will try to keep it extra simple on Fridays and work in some light fasting as well.

  • Foxfier

    I’m in my twenties, so I don’t remember meatless Fridays anytime but Lent.

    I started it up a couple of years ago when I couldn’t do anything else sacrificial, having learned that’s the exchange.

    Since we’re trying to cut costs at the same time, it’s been really easy to do meatless Fridays– the hardest thing is that I can’t serve leftovers. My husband accepts the various tuna casseroles, bargain-bin “meal in a bag” shrimp stir fries (if you get it at the right time, it’s very inexpensive– two or three dollars total) and loves the cheese sandwiches!

    Don’t do clam chowder anything like as often as when I was a kid, I’m not very good at it.

  • Brenda

    My husband has been a Catholic longer than I have – I entered the church in 2009. He’s been talking about going back to meatless Fridays. His contention is that it made life much easier when you remembered that every Friday is a meatless one.

    Me? I’ve never known the difference. What sprang to mind when I read this piece is how we could all take this small sacrifice of a meatless day to help out others. My mind has been on the towns hit by Tornadoes lately. If we ate more spartan meals on Friday and then sent the money saved to places like the Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, then we are helping each other.

    A small sacrifice on my plate each week to help out those who have lost everything. It doesn’t seem like so much.

  • Steve

    I like the idea, but its time has passed. The medical consensus today is that less meat is indicated. It’s not much of a penance to less of what one should already be doing less of. Instead of no meat on Friday, how about no media on Friday? No computer, no texting, no t.v. no nothing. Could you do it?

  • r.wobbe

    I too am a convert to our beloved Catholic faith, and the dis-
    -ipline of meatless fridays had an impact on my conversion.
    Sitting under a wing of a B-25 aircraft at an Air Force Base
    in Washington D.C., and about to share my lunch with a man
    who was ignored by the rest of our crew,( because he had
    abandoned his wife and three children and moved in with
    another women), I reached into my sack of sandwiches and
    placed one on his lap.
    Fred: What kind is it he asked? A stupit question I thought in
    that he had not bought a lunch himself.
    Me: It’s ham
    Fred: I don’t eat meat on fridays. He then hands it back to
    me and I quickly consume that one and a few others.

    Now the thought comes me that Fred is a Catholic, and even
    though he is an adulterer and has abandoned his wife and kids, he did not abandoned his faith, he had taken a small piece of it with him. A disipline a small thread that he had
    grasped onto and would not let go.

    Many years later, after my own conversion, I was visiting a
    church on the other side Washington with my wife and family.
    I was strolling the aisles admiring the stained glass windows
    when I spotted him….Fred. He was sitting up front with a whole bunch of kids and a women I knew to be his wife from of olden times.
    what had caused this wonderful reuniting with his lawful wife
    and those beautiful children? A disipline, remember the thread? One end was tied to the Church and the other end to his heart.

  • Burgo Fitzgerald

    Although I was born shortly after Vatican II, where I come from, “Meatless Friday” was still always seen as a “Catholic Thing”. It was, as I recall a teacher in my catholic grade school saying, “…an outward sign of who we are on the inside.” I think his point was that it was something we could do to show to a world that at the time didn’t do things expressly for ecological reasons or nutritional reasons or whatever sound-byte reason du jour we have now that we consciously made a “real” sacrifice every week.

    Another teacher also said that this weekly sacrifice also helped us “come together”, that we could all do this as a Catholic community.

    I also remember a priest telling us that not eating meat on Friday was a way to remember and keep Good Friday with us all year long.

    The answer I received most was from relatives: “It’s just something Catholics do.”

    I guess now that I am older, not eating meat on Fridays is still a “Catholic thing” to do. I like the ritual. I like the slowing down and stopping and taking stock of what I am doing aspect of it. I don’t do it to save the environment, or because it is ecologically sound, or even because it is healthier. I guess I do it because it ties me to a Catholic history. I am sure that there are some who would say that is a puerile reason or a theologically unsound reason, and they may be right, but it is still me being in the moment and thinking about who I am, where I come from, and ultimately, where and with Whom I desperately want to be one day.

    As for an aversion to the word and concept of “obedience”, to the right person and for the right reason, it can be the most liberating and satisfying state. Besides, embracing it can be an EXCELLENT way of working on overcoming the sin of Pride and the gaping maw that is Self.

  • DWiss

    Macaroni & Cheese! Woo Hoo!

    For a long time I thought meatless Fridays were done away with. It was only recently that I heard different.

    I have very fond memories of the sense of community that little sacrifice created. I also have avery quaint memory of a protestant friend’s mother apologizing to my mother after I was served a hamburger for dinner one Friday night when I was invited to eat there. Apologized! Can you imagine?

  • david s

    When Vatican II hit the street around 1965/66 I was in about the fourth grade. The stripped down version among the kids was:
    1. Mass will be in English.
    2. We can eat meat on Fridays (woo hoo!).
    3. St. Christopher isn’t a saint any more.

    About 25 years later, I learned for the first time that we were supposed to substitute some other penance on Fridays. Although giving up meat on Friday isn’t a huge hardship, I like the idea of solidarity with those who don’t have it, and with the corporate penance of millions of other Catholics over the centuries who followed this practice.

  • Mandy P.

    Brand new Catholic here. I’ve been practicing the Friday abstinence from meat since the rite of welcome at the beginning of Advent. I love it, honestly. With hubby gone at work all day every day and two little ones, a cat, dog, and a house to care for things can get very busy. Abstaining from meat on Friday not only serves as a reminder to me of my faith, but it also helps me to prepare for Reconciliation on Saturdays (the day it is offered in my parish), and for Mass on Sundays. It’s a frame-of-mind thing for me.

  • Annie

    Like many Irish-Catholic American families, my mother maintained the the meatless Fridays and hatful Sundays for many years after the obligation was modified, (you know, more Catholic than the pope) but eventually the practice faded away.

    I admit that I had no idea that we were supposed to replace it with a meaningful substitution until fairly recently.

    I think the Brits are onto something…

  • Miss Kelly

    I’ve been (imperfectly) practicing meatless Fridays for about 4 years. It’s a good tradition, for the reasons people mentioined above. At the cafeteria in our office building, fish is always served on Fridays, even though this company is composed of mostly secular folks.

    As a child, I loved meatless Fridays. My mother usually served fish sticks, tuna casserole or a pancake dinner.

  • jkm

    As Miss Kelly points out, the food service industry has kept the faith longer than most of us who grew up with meatless Fridays: try to find a Friday soup du jour that isn’t clam chowder (or potato, or broccoli cheddar). I also have happy memories of fish sticks, tuna casserole, breakfast-for-supper (minus the bacon), grilled cheese and tomato soup, and a kind of Boston Irish Welsh rarebit that consisted of sliced tomatoes on English muffins, blanketed in Velveeta and run under the broiler. I think the appealing factor was indeed not so much the meatlessness as the simplicity and the solidarity, if not with those in need then certainly with other working class Catholics in the neighborhood. I have been trying to practice that meatless simplicity on Fridays since reverting, but I had to laugh, this first Lent back, to find local restaurants advertising 4-course lobster dinners “for your Lenten pleasure.” And imbued as I still happily claim to be with the Spirit of Vatican II–oh, don’t shun me, I’m here, so that should mean I’m not invincibly ignorant–I was appalled to discover that the revised rules now allow the consumption of soups made with meat broth as well as meat sauces and gravies. Cheaters! It was not for penititential wussiness like this that we pored over the ingredients list on the box of Nabisco Chiken-in-a-Biskit crackers like rabbinical scholars to determine whether “chiken” was meat, or publicly and explosively spat out a bite of Protestant birthday party hot dog (not realizing that there was no meat to speak of in those either) inadvertently consumed on a summer Friday evening!

  • lethargic

    I’m an adult convert of 1993. But I remember my Catholic next-door neighbors when I was in kindergarten, having me over for a Friday supper and serving pancakes — Pancakes!!! Pancakes!!! Joy joy joy!!! It was my first exposure to The Faith and it was a good one indeed.

    I wish we had required meatless Fridays. Choosing my penance is always harder than joining in a communal, community-based, practice. I imagine my family would get more out of it and it would reinforce the concept of faith community in a way that “be sure you do a penance today, kids” cannot. My kids really need more sense of community and I haven’t been able to be the Catholic-Super-Mom to provide it.

    The new fish sandwich at Wendy’s is actually good and I would love to look forward to that as my Friday “treat” … or is that a violation of the idea of penance? LOL

  • dry valleys

    You don’t even need fish, there are a lot of vegetarian recipes that can satisfy a carnivore. I was a vegetarian for 2 years, then resumed eating meat, but I don’t have some compulsion to do so every day.

    There’s a recipe book aimed at people who eat meat but for whatever reason aren’t eating meat at a particular meal.

    A friend of mine is an ex-Sikh. Although she long ago became an atheist, and is actively opposed to most of the traditions she was brought up with, she is a lifelong vegetarian. There are Indian restaurants which serve solely or mainly vegetarian fare. Most of the ones in Britain are run and staffed by people from Muslim regions who eat meat, but there are some vegetarian places, and I’m sure in America too.

    I don’t like tofu or Quorn but I do like some vegetable burgers, provided they don’t try to mimic hamburgers, but have a flavour of their own, a bit like chicken or fish burgers (I recommend the latter).

    They were advocating “meat-free Mondays” being pursued for environmental reasons. A number of right-wing “libertarians” went on to eat even more meat than they otherwise would on Mondays, which I’m not sure is a very grown-up approach to life.

  • Bender

    **I’m pretty sure there must have been a Christmas in there where I ate meat**

    I would hope that you would NOT abstain from meat for penitential reasons on a Christmas Day that fell on a Friday (or the Annunciation during Lent).

    Christmas is a solemnity, a day specifically mandated by the Church as a day for celebration and feasting.

  • Foxfier

    Oh, I’d like to point out– I LIKE the option of doing a penance as an option, it lets me have an option besides being rude as a guest.

  • jtd7

    I’m a lifelong Catholic, same age as david s, and I learned from reading your post today that we were asked to substitute another penance for meatless Fridays. My parents continued the practice, with the unfortunate consequence that I never gave it another thought.

    Now in my 50s, I appreciate the discipline of Friday abstinence during Lent. Yes, it is only a minor inconvenience, but even that is a helpful reminder that my life is not my own but a gift from Our Lord.

    What is the meal pictured at the top of your post? I’m sorry if it brings back fond memories for some, but it looks nasty to me.

  • Foxfier

    It looks like my grandma’s… um… “shoot” on a shingle. Hers was ground sausage in gravy on toast. Might be a version of Welsh Rabbit? (Cheese gravy on toast)

  • Peggy Coffey

    I remember meatless Friday’s. My Irish grandmother had meatless friday’s even after the pope said it was ok. We also had to wear dresses to church and some kind of head covering. She loved the Church, but some things never changed for her.

  • Mary

    I found about it a few years ago — grew up after it — and now give up both meat and pasta on Fridays because I usually don’t eat meat anyway and pasta will do for penance for me.

  • Manny

    I too like the idea of a meatless Friday, but I hope it’s an encouraged option rather than a requirement. I can’t see it being labeled a sin to not eat meat. Actually I like the notion of a personal penance of choice on Friday. Afterall one can eat lobster and call it a meatless Friday. I remember as a kid we didn’t eat meat on Fridays. It’s been a long time.

  • Rose

    I was always taught to either not eat meat or substitute some other small sacrifice.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    Your comment on it being an option so you don’t have to be a rude guest reminded me of a saying from the desert fathers. I dug it up:

    Abbas Silvain and his disciple, Zacharie, called at a monastery on day. They were given food to eat before they set out to leave. On the road, the disciple came across a pool of water and wanted to drink. The Abbas said: “Zacharie, today is a fast day.” He said: “But, Father, we have already eaten.” The Abbas replied, “What we ate was out of love for others; but now we must, between us, keep our fast.”

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    I started abstaining from meat on Friday about 6 years ago…just like abandoning Holy Communion in the hand, it seems the right thing to do.

    I try not to be scrupulous about it…modifying the fast as I need to do from time to time. But each time I pass on a Five Guys hamburger on Friday, I think that maybe its not such a big deal given the Sacrifice of Christ.

    Good reminder for me.

  • William Keevers

    While I agree with the main premise, I have to hold the anecdote about “In This House of Brede” rather at arm’s length (as I hold my nose with the other hand). I found the portrayal of Religious life in the book to be precious and self-satisfied, the sisters appearing overly dedicated to the externals of their high-Church culture not much different from their Anglican opposite numbers, with little sense of conversion, repentance, reparation or mortification of the senses. Perhaps the book gave a glimpse of the tradition of the enormous wealth of English monasticism at the end of the middle ages that ultimately tended toward corruption, as Fr. Groeschel comments, (not only ruining English society with suppression of the monasteries, but the turning of the poor out of the religious institutions, setting the stage for the industrial revolution, and all that). Worse, according to Hilaire Belloc in “Sine auctoritate nulla vita” (roughly, “Without Authority, No Life”, available for free on e-readers), England’s fall allowed a Reformation that otherwise would have died on the vine to succeed and wreck western Christian unity. I found “House of Brede” a sickening reflection, both of the original causes of the English reformation, and of everything wrong with Catholic Great Britain today – not the least of which, the nearly complete faithlessness of the hierarchy, (as a noteworthy Friday radio host personally told me at a San Francisco “Family Celebration”). Poor choice of anecdote.

  • Deb

    I never thought as “meatless” as much of a sacrifice so I don’t know if it would effect me that way. I love veggie sandwiches, salads, eggplant, pasta, cheese, the list goes on. With so many people enjoying meatless meals, I don’t think it carry’s the same feeling as the old “meat and potato” generation when I was younger.