The modern Catholic Church in America has changed from customs and teaching of 50 years ago, often to its detriment. Not doctrine, of course, but in some important discipline, practices and traditions. This is not without harm to the Body of Christ. Friday penance is one such example.
What is penance?
Penance is an expression of repentance. It is a means to repair the temporal effects of sin, for us and in behalf of others, reducing the cleansing necessary in purgatory. For non-Catholics who may be reading this, it has nothing to do with forgiveness. Completely forgiven sins leave a trail of damage in their wake and in justice must be addressed (sooner or later).
Friday is set aside as a special day in remembrance of the suffering and death of our Lord. Practicing Friday penance reminds us of this, pleases God, brings us closer to Him and at least partially atones for the effects of sin. It is an act of humility, surrendering what we prefer (not to perform penance) to what God prefers. It is seeking and yielding to His will.
Penance can take several forms such as abstinence from things we like, fasting, prayers, or performing acts of charity. Friday penance has traditionally been abstinence from meat. If you already abstained from meat for some other reason (vegetarian, health, etc.) then some other form would be indicated.
Are we required to abstain from meat on Friday?
Friday penance is the universal norm of the Church.
That said, it saddens me to acknowledge that we Americans do not have to abstain from meat or perform any other act of penance on Friday. Many people therefore do not, give it no thought at all, or assume it was an outdated / unnecessary practice. That is a mistake.
How we got to this sad state of affairs is complicated. Canon law states:
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.
That seems clear enough in intent, requiring abstinence from meat unless the conference of bishops prescribe something else — which they presumably would do for good cause. The USCCB did this, but with complex wording, approved by Rome, which has the unfortunate effect of making Friday penance optional. For Americans, it is therefore not technically required and not a sin to ignore it. If you are interested in the legalities of this, Jimmy Akin has a good explanation here and here.
Officially, the USCCB strongly urges us to abstain from meat or perform some other act of penance on Friday. This is for our own good and the good of Holy Mother Church. Unofficially, this is never spoken of. While converting, I never heard a peep about this. Subsequently, I never heard a peep about this in homilies, Diocesan newspapers, or any other official channel. Very few people seem to know of the USCCB’s strong admonition to observe Friday penance. The vast majority of folks seem to believe it was “completely done away with.”
Unfortuante and wrong in my opinion. “Rules” which so many deride, are for the good of the faithful to help the greatest number possible get to heaven. That is the mission of the Church on earth. Making this optional, through what is in effect a legal sleight of hand, is counter-productive.
BTW this is another example of the “spirit” of Vatican II. That is, not in Vatican II at all but done anyway. The 1966 USCCB document says “In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance.” Yet, that is EXACTLY what has happened.
Follow the universal norm and observe Friday penance by (for most of us) abstaining from meat. Do it for your own good and the good of the Church. Start now. Set an example for your family, friends and other parishioners. Ask them to join you and tell them why.
Pray that the USCCB learns from this giant mistake. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while president of the USCCB in 2012, wrote: “The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.” While the USCCB has yet to do this, the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, who were in the same situation as us, has done so. Friday penance is reinstituted there.