From Fr. Paul 3-11-2018
Why don’t Catholics eat meat on Friday?
Each year during Lent I am frequently asked, “Why don’t we eat meat on Fridays?” or “Why is fish ok?” This year is no exception. As we begin this season of Lent when we fast, pray and give, we are also all asked to give up eating meat on Friday. I write something on this topic each year because I think many Catholics are unaware why we hold to this practice. If we don’t know the reason, the rule can become an empty one that we might just want to break. There are many reasons you may have heard for this practice. Some say that the Church just wanted to support the fishing industry, but abstaining from meat goes back a long way, into the early centuries of the Church. Some might comment that meat was a luxury in centuries past and is not today for most in this country, so giving up meat has lost its meaning.
If we separate fasting or abstinence from Jesus, going without meat on Friday can be more about choosing whether we want the cheese pizza, or the fish sandwich, or the vegan lunch option instead of about growing closer to Jesus Christ. Yes, it is a discipline the Church asks of us. The purpose for the discipline is so that we might discipline our bodies in reverence for Christ who gave up His Body for us. So we give up eating the flesh of animals for the One who gave up His flesh for us. We do not abstain from fish (or seafood) because the fish is an ancient symbol of Christ. It also brings us into solidarity with Catholics everywhere. We are all remembering the anniversary of the greatest gift of love the world will ever know – the gift Christ gave to us on a Friday, that He died for our salvation.
Catholics didn’t make up the practice of fasting; it comes from Jesus. “Fasting is a biblical discipline that can be defended from both the Old and the New Testament. Jesus Christ expected his disciples to fast (Mt 9:14-15) and issued instructions for how they should do so (Mt 6:16-18). Catholics follow this pattern by holding a partial fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday [when we only eat one full meal and two partial meals to maintain strength].
Abstinence from certain foods is also a biblical discipline. In Daniel 10:2-3 we read, ‘In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.’ Catholics use a practice similar to Daniel's when, as a way of commemorating Christ's Crucifixion on a Friday, they abstain from eating meat on that day of the week during Lent. The only kind of flesh they eat on Friday is fish, which is a symbol of Christ.” (www.catholicanswers.com)
The practice invites us to focus on our soul and not our body. The practice of going without meat on Friday is just one small act of self-sacrifice that points to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us on the cross. If you do not usually eat meat, which means that you are already fulfilling the rule, choose to give up something else on Friday, so that you too are mindful of Jesus’ sacrifice and are in solidarity with Catholics throughout the world. When I visited an orphanage in Mexico once, the children rarely ate meat, so they gave up tortillas (a daily staple) on Fridays to make their sacrifice.
The Church requires us not to eat meat on the Ash Wednesday and the Fridays in Lent, but the Church also requires that we make some sacrifice or penance on every Friday of the year to remind ourselves of the Gift that was given on a Friday that we call Good over 2,000 years ago. I invite you to have a new appreciation to this longstanding tradition in our Church. Remember that when you want that steak, or cheeseburger, or whatever you desire on a Lenten Friday, that you are doing this for Jesus. You are also invited to keep in mind and prayer all those in our city, country and world who go hungry each and every day. If we are not focusing on Jesus and his cross when we fast or abstain from a certain food it can lose all of its meaning and then becomes a chore or a rule we feel forced to follow. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus this Lent as we fast, pray and give.