We’re all familiar with the rules on abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. Until a pastoral statement on penance and abstinence was released by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 1966 following Vatican II, all Catholics abstained from meat on Friday year-round. Changes in canon law gave permission to bishops’ conferences (USCCB in America) to set the norms for that of their respective country/culture.
Canon 1251: Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities…
Canon 1253: The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.
So what rules has the USCCB put in place for the Fridays outside of Lent? The pastoral statement mentioned above says:
Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. […]
Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms:
Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year…For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.
This basically tells us that what’s most important on Friday is the practice of “self-denial” which, as we know, helps us break away from worldly appetites and reorients us towards our spiritual life, God. Since we celebrate the Sacrifice of Christ every Sunday, every Friday should be treated as a “mini Good Friday” in preparation. The USCCB recommends keeping the practice of going meatless on Friday but allows the individual to decide what is appropriate penance for themselves. Misunderstood, many Catholics saw this as “yay, now we do whatever the hell we want on Friday!”. What a shame pastors rarely seem to remind their flock of the importance of this.
So what do you abstain from on your “mini Good Friday”? May I suggest abstaining once a week from the perpetual “noise” of our high-speed modern culture? We are bombarded with information, both useful and useless, from the moment we wake up. For instance, when I wake up, I usually check my phone and one of the last things I do before I go to sleep is check my phone. We are bombarded with distractions that encourage us to avoid any moment of mindful or literal silence: the Internet, television, radio, video games, omnipresent advertisements, phones, etc. All these things are good and, like anything good, should be enjoyed in moderation.
One thing I enjoy is listening to the news on the radio in my car. While keeping on top of current events is indeed good, and even virtuous, the political arguments, loud advertisements, and sometimes sensationalized stories work at eroding time that could be devoted to an “inner life”. So I keep it ‘in check’ by abstaining from turning my radio on when I’m in the car every Friday. It was very hard at first–having all that awkward silence to myself. The first couple of Fridays my brain, similar to one withdrawing from nicotine or drugs, would ache for the barrage of stimulants it became so used to.
“Fasting detaches you from this world. Prayer reattaches you to the next world.”
-Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen
Now I enjoy it. If I don’t use the time to pray a Rosary, I reflect on the week behind me or the day ahead. I have become more aware of my surroundings. I listen to the sounds of the cars and people around me. I better appreciate the breeze from an open window. I drive home in gratitude, thinking about how blessed I am that I will soon be walking into a house with a family waiting for me…and when I get there, I’m peaceful.
So I ask, what do you abstain from on Fridays? How do you realign your soul towards God?
“You’re bored? That’s because you keep your senses awake and your soul asleep.”
-St. Josemaria Escriva