Rediscovering Fridays as a Day of Penance
BY SR. ANNE FLANAGAN, FSP
In response to repeated reported allegations of sexual misconduct, corruption, and cover-ups in the Church, many of us heard repeated exhortations for prayer, fasting, and penance, while from some quarters came a call to restore a common weekly penitential observance. Catholics under age 55 may be asking, “What are they talking about?” Others wonder why all are being called to prayer and penance for abuses committed by specific people.
To some extent, we have a language problem: Penance seems to connote “punishment”; mortification seems … morbid. Yet at one time, terms such as renunciation, self-denial, and restraint were all standards of Catholic piety. While they can be misapplied, they convey Gospel values that we may very much need. “If you do not repent, you will all perish,” Jesus warned in Luke 13:3. This being so important, he gave us both examples and teachings.
Jesus fasted before beginning his public ministry. He would periodically slip away from the crowds and his disciples to pray through the night (fasting from sleep). Some might say he practiced the ultimate form of fasting by living a celibate life, which he also recommended for “whoever can accept this” (Matthew 19:12). He reminded would-be followers to deny themselves and take up their cross each day (see Matthew 16:24).
Still, with his disciples and more famously with sinners, Jesus was more likely to be found feasting than fasting. He worked miracles rather than let people listening to him go hungry. His disciples (and he, by extension) were unfavorably compared with the abstemious followers of John the Baptist and of the Pharisees. Soon after the Ascension, however, we find the apostolic Church engaged in fasting and prayer (see Acts 13:2–3). The Didache presents us with a first-century Christian community that fasted every Wednesday and Friday. Jesus had predicted as much: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).
Circumstances and centuries changed, but Friday remained anchored in the Catholic imagination as the day par excellence to know “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) and share in his suffering (see Philippians 3:10) through penitential practices such as fasting or modest dietary restrictions.
A Catholic family’s calendar in the early-to-mid 20th century featured about 50 days of fasting (every day of Lent!) and roughly 60 meatless days (including all Fridays). Today Catholics in the United States observe two days of fasting (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and eight meatless days. That’s because in 1966, the U.S. bishops decided to broaden the Friday penance. It was not a change of menu they meant to enact, but a change of attitude; they encouraged the faithful to offer personally meaningful acts of charity and self-denial each and every Friday in honor of the Lord’s passion. Abstaining from meat remains the “default” (and is enshrined in canon law) for those who do not undertake another penance.
One thing the bishops perhaps did not reckon with, aside from the media’s propensity for cutting to the chase (such as this Chicago Tribune headline from Nov. 19, 1966: “FRIDAY MEAT BAN LIFTED”), is the power of a common practice to support or encourage us, or re-inspire our flagging motivations. Deeper still, communal penance is an acknowledgement that we “though many, are one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12): The good or evil done by one member affects all members. The charity of the saints stirs all to greater charity; the indifference of the tepid spreads like the common cold; mortal sins weaken everyone.
Friday penance, in its communal dimension, does not say that all of us share blame or guilt for the sins that daily fill our social media feeds. What it does say is that, as Jesus suffered on the cross to take away the sins of the world (see John 1:29), sins that he did not personally commit, our small acts of penance can be associated with his for the good of the whole Church. It can even be a way of sharing the burden borne by the victims of sins that are hard even to hear about. Our “prayers, actions, joys, and sufferings,” offered with Christ’s, offer a counterweight of love to offset the rejection of God’s love by the perpetrators of so many evils.
Even a superficial observance like skipping a hamburger on Friday has the benefit of turning our grateful attention to Jesus. Every Friday brings a reminder of “the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20) and highlights the Easter quality of Sunday, creating a weekly “triduum” that naturally includes Saturday, long associated with Our Lady. The weekly practice sensitizes us to other sacred times in the week, month, or year — special occasions when fasting would not be fitting (such as holy days).
The works of mercy are a perfect fit for Fridays. Fasting is the quintessential form of penance and a model for other forms, but the prophets of old decried ceremonial fasting unaccompanied by works of justice. They called for “sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them” (Isaiah 58:7). Positive penances, the kind Isaiah wrote about in 700 B.C. and the U.S. bishops urged on the faithful in 1966, are direct forms of self-giving. They involve a sacrifice of time, energy, patience, and other earthly resources, but more importantly they take us out of ourselves in an irreplaceable gift of love.
Still, bodily practices have a role to play. We routinely fast for certain blood tests and medical procedures. Dieters are always fasting or abstaining from something, and “saving room for dessert” can be downright exciting. Penitential fasting is not so different — except in its motivation. Acts of penance and self-denial anchor what we believe in time and space and make it real and convincing — even to us.
Devotion to Friday in honor of the crucified Christ also offers an enormous spiritual benefit. When deep sorrows touch our lives, we are better equipped to recognize that these sufferings are not ours alone; they are a form of intimate communion with Jesus Christ, who continues to live all the events and mysteries of his life through us (see Galatians 2:20). There is nothing of ours that is not also (and already!) his in some mysterious way. And there is nothing of his that he will not share with us, if we are willing to receive it.
St. Paul reminds us that “the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). Fasting and other penitential acts help us obey Jesus’ injunction to make friends for yourselves by your use of this world’s goods — time, food, drink, comfort, entertainment, leisure (see Luke 16:9).
Only in this life will we be able to offer God, as a gift of love, experiences of limitation, discomfort, and inconvenience in pursuit of good. Our Friday appointments at the cross take our gaze beyond the limited horizon of time. Every tiny act of self-denial motivated by faith and love is an affirmation that the earthly good I forego is not all there is; the best is yet to come. Time will have an end … and so will fasting.
Plan of life
Because Jesus is with us until the end of time, as Christians we should be distinguished by joy. At the same time, however, we are not always with Jesus, because sin separates us from communion with him. When people begin to take God’s call to holiness earnestly, they recognize that they need to take fasting more seriously. Most people in ordinary circumstances can choose types of fasting that go unnoticed by others and also offer many opportunities each day to practice holy self-denial:
•to drink only water (and coffee if necessary)
•to give up condiments on food (salt, pep-per, sugar, butter, ketchup, salad dressing)
•to avoid sweets and snacks between meals
Fasts such as these convince us that we don’t live on bread alone and help us to pray with our bodies in a way that will open our souls to grasp every word that comes from the Father’s mouth. Bold Christian fasting enables us to work for the food that endures for eternal life as part of a Christian Plan of Life.
Excerpted and adapted from Plan of Life by Fr. Roger J. Landry (Pauline Books & Media, 2018).
U.S. bishops 1966 statement
It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith (Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, 27, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Nov. 18, 1966). To read the entire document, visit CDmag.net/2x7wq36.
What does canon law say?
The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. (Canon, 1250)