Christ died on a Friday, so it carries a special sacred significance for Catholics . . .
Certain preachers have tried to scare the hell out of folks — hoping to scare them out of Hell. However, the Church has no authority to send people to Hell. But Jesus did invest the leaders of his Church with his authority to “bind and loose” (Mt 16:19; 18:18).
This was a familiar formula in the first century. Rabbis had the power to make halakah, or rules of conduct, for the faith community — including setting aside days for fasting and repentance.
Because Friday is the day Christ died for the sin of the world, it carries a special sacred significance for Catholics. To set this day apart, the Church teaches us to perform works of penance. Canon Law declares: “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the episcopal conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday” (1251).
Prior to Feb. 17, 1966, Catholics understood the Friday abstinence to mean abstaining from meat. But Pope Paul VI modified the discipline in his apostolic constitution Poenitemini. The basic purpose of the Friday abstinence is to establish a regular, rhythmic and corporate self-denial.
But as Paul VI reminded us, it’s not about avoiding filet mignon, but about “prayer-fasting-charity.” He urged Catholics to show solidarity with “their brothers who suffer in poverty and hunger, beyond all boundaries of nation and continent.”
After Poenitemini, each bishops’ conference could decide exactly what the culturally appropriate penitential practices should be. For example, in 1984 the French bishops reinstated the Friday abstinence from meat, but also included tobacco and alcohol. In America, other forms of penance can be substituted for abstinence from meat.
To consciously and maliciously refuse to participate in this communal discipline is a serious matter. It weakens the witness of the Church to Christ’s atoning work on Good Friday and ignores an invitation to the grace offered by Christ. So it’s sad that many Catholics have lost the sense of community that once bound us together in this discipline.
Al Kresta is CEO of Ave Maria Communications and host of Kresta in the Afternoon. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “Why Do Catholics Genuflect?” (Servant Publications/St. Anthony Messenger Press 2001).