A reader alerted me to a letter of His Excellency Most Reverend R. Daniel Conlon, Bishop of Steubenville about Friday penance.
This is post on the website of the Diocese of Steubenville and the letter was to be read before or at the end of all Masses on the weekend of March 28 and 29, 2009.
This letter is great grist for my blogging mill today.
Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments. At the end I will rant for a while and ask some questions.
Food on Fridays
March 28, 2009
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
With a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, Jesus fed thousands. It was a sign of how he would himself become the Bread of Life, true life for those who believe in him.
We cannot become literally other Christs. [Though by ordination a priest is, when he celebrates Mass for example, alter Christus… ] We can be transformed by his life and be instruments of his life for others. Just as he accomplished salvation through his supreme sacrifice on the cross, we can fulfill our Christian mission through sacrifice. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, fast and care for the poor as types of sacrifice.
Maybe we separate these three activities into distinct functions. Jesus drew them together in feeding the multitude. He took the meager food of the apostles, prayed over it and distributed it to the poor. On Calvary, after a day with no food or drink, he gave his life for us sinners, all the while praying to his Father.
We can do the same in a very simple way. I am inviting the Catholic people of the Diocese of Steubenville to resume the practice of abstaining from meat on all Fridays throughout the year, but with a twist. I am asking that this be not only a penitential practice but also an experience of prayer and service. This can happen by connecting abstinence with our witness to the sacredness of human life. [St. Pope Leo the Great (+461) in his preaching during penitential times always connected fasting to almsgiving. In the ancient Church fasting was not just penitential. It was a dimension of the Christian’s works of mercy.]
The Church teaches, in harmony with divine revelation, that every human life is sacred and inviolable from conception to natural death. Yet, abortion is widely accepted and legalized. Wars abound. Suicide bombings, terrorist attacks and public shootings kill innocent people. Domestic violence, human trafficking, racism, assisted suicide, capital punishment and so many other acts and attitudes degrade what is made in the image of God.
We must continue to teach the truth about life without ceasing and without hesitancy. But actions often speak louder than words. Abstinence from meat on Fridays, for the sake of life, is one such action, especially when done in solidarity with one another. [Remember the distinction in law between abstinence (giving up certain foods) and fasting (cutting back the quantity of food). Both are tools of discipline.]
Abstinence is a form of fasting—a discipline of the body. It can remind us of the beautiful gift of life that God has given to us personally. It can also remind us and each other of how sacred everyone else’s life is. As a public witness, it can be a service to those whose life and human dignity are at risk.
Next to Sunday, Friday has always been a special day in the Catholic Church for prayer. [We Catholics were famous for not eating meat on Fridays. It was part of our identity both for ourselves and Catholics (ad intra) and for the rest of the non-Catholic world (ad extra).] Offering prayer for life–praising God as the source of life and begging him to turn away threats to life–is a fitting addition to abstinence. This prayer can be in the parish setting, in the family or alone. Abstinence itself can be offered consciously as a prayer for life and in reparation for sins against life.
Abstinence can also be service if we eat simple meatless food and donate the financial savings to the poor or to pro-life efforts. [Which would require people a) to do this consciously and b) keep some sort of record. For example, when preparing supper calculate the difference in the cost of the meal if the, say, pork chops were substituted with, say, scrambled eggs.]
The resumption of year-round abstinence in the Diocese of Steubenville will begin after this coming Easter, one week after Good Friday (April 17). Although the practice will not be a requirement of law, and failing to keep it will not constitute a sin, I hope every one who is old enough to receive Holy Communion and well enough to come to church will take it seriously. Our parishes, schools and organizations should provide meatless food at their Friday activities.
Until 1966, Catholics around the world were required to abstain from meat on all Fridays. That year, Pope Paul VI determined that the rules for fasting and abstinence should be set by the various episcopal conferences according to local circumstances. At the same time, he reminded us that doing penance was commanded by Christ himself and is an important part of our spiritual life. [More on this below… a lot more…]
The bishops of the United States eliminated mandatory abstinence from meat on Fridays except during Lent. However, they insisted that all Catholics should observe some penitential practice on Fridays, in remembrance of the Lord’s passion and death, and they highly recommended continuing abstinence from meat. [But…. wait for the coin to drop…. Do they? Do Catholics actually do penance?]
So, the present challenge to the people in our diocese is not really radical. It is a call to what many if not most of us have put aside. And it is a way for us, like the apostles, to give up a little food and help Jesus feed the world. [It’s the Catholic thing to do!]
May God bless you and your sacrifice. May he protect the life he has so lovingly fashioned.
Most Reverend R. Daniel Conlon
Bishop of Steubenville
A worthy project well-conceived and presented. Well done indeed!
Now… I shall commence to rant.
First, Pope Benedict’s pontificate is very much about reinvigorating our Catholic identity. If we don’t know who we are as Catholics, then we will not contribute effectively as Catholics to the public square. We will not be able to shape the world around us according to our vocations, because we don’t know who we really are.
Nemo dat quod non habet. You can’t give what you don’t have.
I have been beating to quarters on this for long time now.
However…. more and more I am noting Catholic figures in the press, even Catholic bishops, are talking in terms of our Catholic identity crisis.
For example, I heard on a Catholic radio program the other day Bp. Sheridan of Colorado Springs talking about regaining our Catholic identity. I read the other day how Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute had a piece on the site of National Review about the Catholic identity crisis.
Of course the plural of anecdote is not data, but I think we are finally getting somewhere with this theme.
The recent shifts in the culture war are wake up calls. If you don’t hear reveille echoing off the walls of, for example, Georgetown and Notre Shame… then you are asleep indeed. You might already be dead.
My suspicion is that we will see and hear a great deal more about the theme of Catholic identity in the future. This is a topic whose time has come.
Actually it came a long time ago!
Second, it would be interesting to explore making the obligation of Friday penance once again a matter of.. well… obligation.
When Pope Paul VI changed the Church’s laws on penance, he did so from a sense of optimism about the identity of the Catholic people. He did so from the hope that we, knowing the value of penitential practices, would embrace them willingly on our own … without an obligation under sin. After all, love of God is a more perfect motive to go to confession than fear of hell, right. Similarly, it is better if people willingly embrace their penances from well-informed choice than it is to do so simply because if you don’t, it’s a sin you have to confess.
At this point I must remind people that if love of God is more perfect, fear of hell is enough. And I wonder how many people worry about hell these days… but I digress.
It seems to me that there was an overly optimistic, naive premise at work in the Council and its aftermath: that modern man was now mature, "grown up" and sophisticated in respect to previous ages. We have grown beyond of the need for obligation under sin, or the kneel as if before a master, or receive Communion on the tongue from a power-figure priest, or fret about sins. We are are all grown up and sophisticated!
That rosy view was wrong.
We grow in knowledge and ability, but basic human needs and weaknesses remain the same. Man doesn’t change in those respects. It is follow to assume otherwise.
I think we are not so "grown up" after all. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for Holy Mother Church to treat us as children and guide us through our spiritual fathers? Children need rules with consequences. What happens when the rod is spared? What do children learn or become when things are too easy?
Consider the present length of the Eucharistic fast. I think the Church should lengthen it again to three hours, both to give it more importance and also give people a reasonable "out" if they are worried what people will think if they don’t go forward for Communion.
"But Father! But Father!", the skeptical are surely saying. "People have no idea what all this penance stuff is about. Bishops and priests haven’t talked about that for decades now. Friday? What a joke! Fasting? Sin? Puhleeze!"
Right… but brick by brick, my citizens. We can whine or we can get to work. We have a lot of rebuilding to do. This is why I yamnmer away about Pope Benedict’s "Marshall Plan" to rebuild Catholic identity. We must do this for our sake as individuals but also for the sake of the Church in the modern post-Christian world.
So, it is good that Bp. Conlon has issued this letter.
But I ask… could it be a good idea to bring back obligations under sin?
Isn’t the optimism that Catholics are "grown up" enough to choose these things on their own a bit too rosy… a bit naive?
When the Novus Ordo came out, the rules and rubrics in the front of the missal no longer included that certain defects or abuses were sins, even mortal sins. The result was, over time, a loss of the sense of the importance of saying the black and doing the red. A liturgical entropy set in. Priests lost sight of the good workmanship required to celebrate well. They lost respect for the people and respect for the efficacy of the sacred actions and their importance for the whole Church bridging space and ages. Removing the notion of sin from not following the books was perhaps naive optimism. We could perhaps argue that insufficient consideration was given both to our wounded human nature as well as the acid working of the Enemy of the soul to corrode that which is most precious.
Corruptio optimi pessima.
So… is it time – in the context of this crisis of our Catholic identity – to rethink some things?
"But Father! But Father!", opponents will start shouting. "You want to bring back the ’50’s when everyone was ridden with guilt. We don’t want that neurosis again!"
Fine. Then don’t be neurotic.
We have learned from the chaotic years after the Council what we lost in the older form of Mass. I’ll Mass is celebrated in the older form better now than it was before. There is no reason why, given the intervening decades and our experience, we can’t reintroduce a healthy fear of God and dread of hell, respect for our weaknesses tempered with true Christian hope and the understanding of our dignity as images of God.
Should we to return to an explicit obligation under sin to do penance on all Fridays and during Lent?