QUAERITUR: Friday Lenten penance on Solemnity of St. Joseph

From a reader:

Friday is the Solemnity of St. Joseph. I know that according to canon law, solemnities take precedence over any day of penance, at least in ordinary time. Are we still bound to abstinence from meat on March 19?


This sort of question comes up almost every year.  At least we won’t have the irritating problem of the Feast of St. Patrick this year.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law states:

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 (nisi) they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

Friday 19 March is the Solemnity of St. Joseph.  Therefore, because of the solemnity, Friday Lenten abstinence is not required.

Of course you are not obliged not to abstain either.  You can voluntarily abstain from meat on a solemnity if you choose.

We should take into consideration that in some places where there are people of Italian origin there is custom of preparing a free and open "table" dedicated especially for the poor.  Such initiatives will often include dishes with meat.  The Church’s law should put people at their ease that, were they to eat meat on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, they would not be breaking the Church’s law on abstinence on Fridays of Lent.

That said, on a personal note I will for at least part of Friday not eat an meat in public.  I will be traveling during the day and if in the airport or on the plane I have the opportunity to grab a bite to eat, it will not include meat.  I don’t want to have people looking at a priest eating a cheeseburger on a Friday of Lent (which is, coincidentally, when I usually crave a cheeseburger), even though it is a solemnity. 

Remember: If you are in doubt, you can call your local chancery.


Canonist Ed Peters, who comments below, has an entry on his blog about this issue.

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  1. Right again. Naturally. [Many thanks! I am glad for the confirmation from such a distinguished canonist.]

  2. doanli says:

    Fr, I was also not aware that we were to abstain from meat EVERY Friday, not just during Lent.

    And I’m 46 years old!

  3. Doanli,

    Pope Paul VI decreed in the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, that Fridays throughout the year are days of abstinence from meat but that on those outside of Lent, if it was necessary to eat meat, a different penance could be substituted.

    The result of course is that most people think you can eat meat regardless and don’t substitute any penance.

    Must have been that “spirit” again.

    You can read what the document “really says” here:


  4. Jono says:

    @ doanli

    In the Roman Rite, every day of Lent and every Friday are Days of Penance. Some penitential practice must occur on every one of them. The penitential practice formerly required by law for all Fridays was abstinence from meat. In the United States, due to the directives of the Bishops’ Conference, another penance may be SUBSTITUTED on Fridays outside of Lent.

    Unfortunately, since abstinence from meat was reduced to the RECOMMENDED penance for all Fridays rather than the REQUIRED penance, the result has been that most Catholics were not catechized that all Fridays REMAIN days of penance.

    In my own practice, I attempt to abstain from meat on all Fridays. However, if I am a guest at someone’s house or at an event on a Friday outside of Lent and meat is the only dish served, I will partake (I think I would be a jerk if I didn’t). At the same time I make a note that I ought to do some penitential act beyond the ordinary.

    The Canon granting the bishops the right to substitute some other penance is as follows:

    Can. 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.

  5. Carolina Geo says:

    In my Angelus Press missal of 1962, when talking about the traditional penitential days and rules, it states that “Abstinence was obligatory on all Fridays, except on holy days of obligation outside of Lent,” and that “Sundays throughout the year and holy days of obligation outside of Lent [emphasis in the original] cancelled the Fasting and/or Abstinence of any penitential day which coincided.” Since I keep to the traditional fast rules, I will not be eating meat on the 19th. I have been told (by an ex-seminarian) that this is the practice at the Fraternity seminary as well.

  6. peregrinPF says:

    I had always thought it was up to the individual Bishop. I remember this from 6 years ago. If I remember right, some Bishops said yes & some said no.

  7. Amy MEV says:

    I am very thankful that we will be able to celebrate my son’s feast day – yay!
    I am also thrilled to see another soul has learned that abstaining from meat is for EVERY Friday, inside and outside of Lent (Solemnities excepted, of course!). Way to go, Father!

  8. MarkJ says:

    What better way to honor St. Joseph than to do EXTRA penance on his feast day? I intend to keep the abstinence from meat, and add something else in his honor and in memory of the Passion of our Lord. The spirit of Lent is all about going beyond what the Church requires… isn’t it?

  9. jrotond2 says:

    If following strictly the laws in place in 1962, one would follow the 1917 Code of Canon Law which made no such exceptions to fasting and abstinence, even of feast days, in Lent. [But.. the 1983 Code is now in force.]

    Now, St. Joseph being a First Class Feast and likewise a patronal holiday for us Italians, I am thankful that the above law no longer binds, because I like to adopt a principle of “Fast with the Church/Feast with the Church” – hence, First Class Feasts being of the utmost celebration, it is quite fitting that we keep these days as “Other Sundays” complete with Mass attendance and a formal Sunday dinner.

    On the other hand, Fr. Z has cautioned us to act prudently. If we choose to eat meat this Friday, let us be mindful that we don’t cause scandal or bad example. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of the rules, and sometimes we can come across as too legalistic and cause others to be given a negative view of our dietary laws. For this reason, I am going to remain inconspicuous when taking my lunch at work this Friday. Of course, in an ideal world, one would have off from work for St. Joseph, but I digress…


  10. mwa says:

    Surprisingly, our parish bulletin this past Sunday had an announcement that because it is a Solemnity, Bishop Barbarito grants a dispensation from Friday Lenten abstinence to all Catholics in the diocese on that day.

  11. Lee says:

    “This sort of question comes up almost every year. At least we won’t have the irritating problem of the Feast of St. Patrick this year.”

    You have this backwards. Every year we have the irritating problem of Lent totally smothering what would otherwise be the the Holy and Glorious Season of St. Padraig!

  12. avecrux says:

    They Church, in Her wisdom, wants us to celebrate solemnities… choosing to celebrate with extra penance kind of misses the point, I think. For example, back when I was a student at Thomas Aquinas College, our Chaplain said he would have our heads if he saw us fasting on Holy Thursday. Human beings celebrate with legitimate sensual pleasures of food and drink.

  13. Rob Cartusciello says:

    My wife & I have been observing the Eastern Christian fast (though we are Latin Catholics). We have been eagarly awaiting the Feast of St. Joseph and the Annunciation.

    Observing this fast has been a great gift and greatly helped our spiritual discipline. I cannot recommend it enough.

    It also makes one appreciate the importance of the Feast of the Annunciation.

  14. Liz F says:

    One idea is to still have no meat, but make it special like crab or shrimp. We were thinking about doing that. We definitely want to celebrate St. Joseph’s feast day, we love him so much.

  15. jbalza007 says:

    A quick call to our Bishop’s Office (Oakland) to inquire whether there is a dispensation from abstinence granted on St. Joseph’s Day: “There is no general dispensation but you can ask your pastor for an individual one.” [Perhaps a better question could be to ask what one’s obligation is for Friday, 19 March, rather than ask about a dispensation.]

  16. Maurus Petrus says:

    Traditionally, St. Joseph Day meals will NOT include meat, because St. Joseph’s Day is always during Lent.

    So really, I don’t think that abstaining from meat would get in the way of celebrating the solemnity (even though eating meat is “legal” in the Church sense).

  17. Peggy R says:

    I haven’t check yet myself, but I wonder if we are to hear of some opening day (baseball) games on Good Friday again. Some people will seek dispensation to eat meat, not fast. Should Catholics be at a ballgame anyway on that day?

  18. Why would the office of the bishop in Oakland say there is no general dispensation, when it would appear (at least from what I have read above) that there is no obligation to abstain?


  19. Geoffrey says:

    “Why would the office of the bishop in Oakland say there is no general dispensation, when it would appear (at least from what I have read above) that there is no obligation to abstain? Anyone?”

    They probably don’t know! Canon Law trumps all, so…

  20. Fr Martin Fox says:

    No dispensation is necessary concerning meat on a Friday solemnity!

    You don’t have to eat meat, of course–but you aren’t doing contrary to the law (and hence, need not be dispensed from it) by celebrating–feasting–on St. Joseph’s Day! (I might point out that the Gloria will reappear at that Mass.)

  21. Fr. Fox: Right! And that is something very important to remember. If you choose to eat meat on this solemnity, you are not violating anything in the Church’s law. You can be at east on that point.

  22. Greg Smisek says:

    I had always thought it was up to the individual Bishop. I remember this from 6 years ago. If I remember right, some Bishops said yes & some said no.

    I think you’re thinking of St. Patrick’s Day (which is not a solemnity in most places outside Ireland). When it falls on a Friday, some bishops dispense their flock from the obligation to abstain from eating meat and some don’t.

  23. spock says:

    As a child (I’m 41), I NEVER heard that Friday’s outside of Lent were still penitential days. All I ever heard was that one can eat meat on Friday’s outside of Lent. My guess would be ecumenical considerations, Mustn’t be too different from those around us. :)

    As far as St. Joseph’s Feast Day is concerned, “If you cannot fast, you cannot feast, and if you cannot feast, you cannot fast, (G.K. Chesterton). Not that I’m going to blow $30 on dinner. That would be an excess as well.

  24. Nan says:

    Interesting. My Bishop has asked us to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year to join him in his intention to foster Vocations, which I happily do.

    On Friday, the Rector let us know that for Solemnities we do not abstain from meat on Friday, though, not being a great meat eater, I’m having shrimp scampi as a more festive option.

    Today at lunch, someone mentioned that a colleague said that on the Solemnity of St. Joseph it isn’t necessary to fast from meat. I told her it was true.

  25. TC says:

    When I noticed there was no little fish on the calendar for this Friday I thought for a second it was because of my mother’s birthday. [dopeslap]

    Of course, she IS a saint.

  26. doanli says:

    My husband LOVES abstinence from meat on Fridays. He INHALES seafood. He’s not even Roman Catholic.

  27. Henry Edwards says:

    I recall hearing a very serious and holy priest say that feasting on feast days is just as important as fasting on fast days. Being different ways of giving glory to God on different days.

  28. Father G says:

    In 2011, the Solemnity of the Annunciation will fall on a Friday of Lent, so the obligation to abstain from meat is also dispensed automatically.

    Those of you who have Catholic wall calenders from the Catholic Church Extension Society will notice that the symbol of a fish and the word “abstinence” are placed in the box for March 19th. I would recommend writing an email to info@catholicextension.org and inform them of their error, so that it not appear again for March 25, 2011.

  29. kellym says:

    Luckily, the Good Friday baseball issue won’t be a factor this year, with Opening Day officially being Easter Sunday evening, April 4th. Hmmm, even that’s kinda squishy, isn’t it?

    I agree with you, Peggy R, about Catholics being at a ball game on Good Friday to begin with. As much as I’d want to see my team play, there’s just something unseemly about taking in what is in essence, a frivolous entertainment, on such a solemn day. I do recall a few years ago there being a huge issue for the Fenway Faithful when it was decided that although the game would be played on Good Friday as scheduled there would be no beer sales. You can imagine the uproar over that!

    @Spock – like you, I’d grown up only observing meatless Fridays during Lent. It’s only been in the last few years (I’m 41) that I’ve discovered and begun observing this regulation year-round as much as possible. Being married to a non-Catholic can be a little tricky in these things. He’s usually on board with me every Friday but sometimes he balks. I casually made mention of our observance in a conversation with my mother once and she was puzzled, stating that the every Friday rule was no longer in effect. I decided discretion was the better part of valor and kept my trap shut. :-^

  30. Ben Dunlap says:

    What better way to honor St. Joseph than to do EXTRA penance on his feast day?

    I think there may be precedent for this approach in early monasticism — but these days even the Carthusians, Trappists, and Poor Clares relax their discipline on major feasts. A different possibility might be to do extra penance before the feast day, as a spiritual preparation.

    I like the liturgical angle here as well. If you look at the precedence-table that you’ll find in the front of any volume of the Liturgy of the Hours, it’s clear that a solemnity displaces a weekday in Lent. As Fr. Fox points out above, the Gloria will re-appear at mass on the 19th. There will also be a 2nd reading and a Credo.

    So all of this suggests that, liturgically speaking, the Church temporarily “suspends” Lent for the Solemnity of St. Joseph.

  31. doanli says:

    Spock and kellym— glad I am not the only one who didn’t know about abstaining from meat on Fridays outside of Lent as well! Must have been that “Spirit of V2” at work! lol

  32. tzard says:

    It would seem that the spirit of the law is that solemnities should even so be specially observed, or remembered. Perhaps going to Mass that day would be particularly appropriate – or perhaps some special prayer like the Litany of St. Joseph.

    But it also occurs to me that visibly *not* fasting on such a day would provide an opportunity to talk about St. Joseph. I can understand a priest perhaps being extra careful to avoid scandal, but families…. What about starting out your grace at Burger King with: “Oh my Jesus, thank you for St. Joseph, whose model of obedience and humility we observe on this Feast Day; and in honor of which, the Church frees us from Friday Abstinence today. Bless us Oh Lord….”

  33. Seumas says:

    Eating at Burger King would be one of the worst penances I can think of…

  34. wolfeken says:

    It may be a first class feast day, but it is still Lent. There is a second collect, secret and postcommunion in the TLM that reminds us not to get too excited.

    Understanding the current law written to coincide with the novus ordo, I concur with those who say hearing the 1962 TLM makes the most sense if one follows the discipline of 1962. That discipline waives Friday abstinence and the Lenten fast only if the first class day is obligatory.

    The observation above about most Saint Joseph Day recipes being meatless is a valuable one.

  35. Jeffrey Morse says:

    A Solemnity/First Class Feast is just that, and canon law is canon law. The Angelus Press missal is SSPX and does NOT represent the new code of canon law. In my FSSP parish, we have been told meat is allowed. Gaudeamus!

  36. kat says:

    Not only is St. Joseph’s feast a solemnity, but our parish has him as our patron, so…our school and parish celebrate it big time, including a big special dinner that evening, at which meat will be served. My son got lucky, as his birthday is that day; so he always gets 1/2 day of school, and a chance to celebrate…except when, as last year, St. Joseph’s Day got moved out of Holy Week!

  37. Luke says:

    FatherZ, I love that picture of Saint Joseph!

  38. Fr. Andrew says:

    RE: Luke

    I believe that picture of St. Joseph is from Michael O’Brien, a Catholic author and artist.

  39. helgothjb says:

    Our homeschool co-op asked our bishop, although my wife and I already knew because we can read canon law. Both he and our pastor (at Mass) told us what we already knew, a solemnity trumps everything else. For many, this is the sort of thing that does not compute, eating meat on a Friday of Lent. But, it is not really a Friday, because of the Solemnity, liturgically it is a really a Sunday. It would be completely contrary to the nature of a Solemnity to fast. I think some are so excited to fast because they know it goes against the spirit of the world and helps them so much in their spiritual growth. However, to them, it does not seem that feasting does the same because the world preaches over indulgence so much; when actually, feasting means showing the proper joy and excitement about the Solemnities of the Church – which also drives out the spirit of the world! We need both.

  40. ikseret says:

    St. Patrick’s day although a commemoration in the universal calendar is a solemnity within the confines of the Archdiocese of New York since St. Patrick is the patron. (N.B. Brooklyn (incl. Queens is a separate diocese, so they’d have to travel to Manhattan, the Bonx, or S.I. to eat meat unless given a special dispensation by their own bishop).
    So, New Yorkers have an added privilege during Lent when March 17th is a Friday.

  41. Father G says:

    In my opinion, to do penance or fasting on a day in which the Church declares a solemnity would be like dressing in rags to attend the feast that the Lord has prepared to honor Saint Joseph.

  42. wolfeken says:

    There is a difference between a non-obligatory first class feast (solemnity) and a first class feast that is a holy day of obligation. The discipline in place during 1962 makes this clear distinction, relaxing fast/abstinence for only the latter.

    If the day was truly scrapping a Lenten weekday, then there wouldn’t be commemorations in the Mass for Lent, nor would a Gradual and Tract be used on Saint Joseph’s Day instead of an Alleluia.

    I find it amazing that the same people who argue for feasting during Lent are the ones who can’t wait to chant “for the sake of His sorrowful passion” 100 times on the Octave Day of Easter.

  43. Geoffrey says:

    “There is a difference between a non-obligatory first class feast (solemnity) and a first class feast that is a holy day of obligation.”

    In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, yes. The classifying of liturgical days as classes (first, second, etc.) does not exist in the Ordinary Form.

    “I find it amazing that the same people who argue for feasting during Lent are the ones who can’t wait to chant ‘for the sake of His sorrowful passion’ 100 times on the Octave Day of Easter.”

    First, no one is “arguing for feasting during Lent”. There is nothing to “argue” about. Canon Law has spoken.

    Second, the Divine Mercy devotion is a legitimate Catholic devotion, endorsed by Holy Mother Church with a plenary indulgence on the Octave Day of Easter — the Feast of Divine Mercy — in which the Gospel reading of the day (in both forms of the Roman Rite), is about the institution of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation… the Sacrament of Mercy.

  44. thymos says:

    Fr. Z. and (distinguished Canonists),

    As I see it, Canon 1250 calls for Friday to be a day of penance, and then 1251 calls for Friday as a day for Abstinence from meat, with the famous “unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday,” clause. Does the solemnity abrogate the need for *any* penance on Friday (i.e., does the solemnity clause apply to 1250 as well, or do we still have to do some penance since it’s a Friday, just not necessarily a meatless penance?

  45. trinko says:

    I thought I’d share this story for the glory of St. Joseph.

    I get panic attacks. I haven’t had them for years but they started up again this Ash Wednesday. I had a really bad one Thursday night, only got about 1.5 hrs sleep. I’ve found that eating a bunch of protein really helps me calm down–apparently some tiny hunger pangs that I don’t even notice help spin me up. Of course I was really worried about what I’d do on Friday since it was a Friday in Lent. I have allergies and I really don’t like fish and when I’m having a panic attack I have to force myself to eat and forcing myself to eat something I hate would be tough.

    I called my son who’s in the novitiate to ask him and the folks there to pray for me and he thought that meat was allowed because of the Solemnity of St. Joseph. He wasn’t sure, he offered to check but I was concerned it varied from diocese to diocese so I told him not to bother. I called my daughter and she said the same thing so while I was talking to her I checked the web and found this site. When I saw that it was Canon Law I ate some ham which really helped.

    I’ve always had a devotion to St. Joseph but I decided to check and see how often this situation occurs. It turns out that the last time it happened was in 2004 and the next will be in 2021! As a result I take this as a pretty clear sign that St. Joseph was interceding for me. Since Friday I’ve been nervous but I haven’t had any panic attacks so St. Joseph seems to be really helping by interceding for me.

    Interestingly enough the good Lord has also made it clear why I’ve had at least some of these attacks lately, they’ve led to several improvements in my relationships with others and with God by bringing me to more prayer–when I’m dealing with the attack I often pace and pray.

    Anyway I thought I’d share this story to let people see how much Jesus loves St. Joseph. Thanks for the great information!

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