On all Fridays of the year, Catholics are required to do some penance. The preferred penance is abstaining from meat, but we may choose another penance if we wish.
On Lenten Fridays we must abstain from meat. Eating meat on a Lenten Friday is a mortal sin if all three conditions in § 1857 are met: grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent.
God’s first command to man with respect to abstinence occurred in the Garden of Eden. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” Gen 2:17.
God commanded in the Torah dietary (“kosher”) laws that the people Israel were to abstain from eating particular kinds of animals, Lev 11, Deut 14 and that Jews fast as a penance on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “And it shall be a statute to you for ever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves” Lev 16:29. The ancient rabbis understood “afflict yourselves” as a command to fast.
Jews fasted in a spirit of penance on similar occasions. “Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept; they sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until evening” Jdg 20:26. God further commanded abstinence in the Jewish Passover celebration. “You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction” Deut 16:3.
Rabbi Yeshua fasted forty days in the desert, during which time He took neither food nor drink. “And [Christ] fasted forty days and forty nights” Mt 4:2. He told the Jews in the synagogue at Capernaum, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” Jn 6:51. Christians have abstained from eating meat on Fridays in commemoration of his passion and death since the First Century.
In Rabbi Yeshua’s time, the Pharisees fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays Lk 18:12. Christians, following ancient Jewish traditions of fast and abstinence for penance, observed the law of fasting on Wednesdays and Friday abstinence from the time of Christ’s Crucifixion.
The Didache (Teachings of the Apostles), chapter 8: “But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation.” (Wednesday and Friday).
As the centuries passed, the original requirement to fast twice a week was reduced. But, during the Church’s entire history, until 1966, all Fridays have been obligatory days of abstinence from meat on pain of mortal sin.
Since 1966, All Fridays during Lent remain obligatory days of abstinence from meat on pain of mortal sin. All other Fridays remain days of penance. The ordinary penance is abstention from meat. However, on non-Lenten Fridays, the faithful may substitute another penance. The substituted penance should involve a level of sacrifice comparable to abstention from meat.
When Friday coincides with a solemnity we are dispensed from penance (Canon 1251), in order that we might concentrate more fully on the occasion for the solemnity. All Holy Days of Obligation are solemnities.
Pope Paul VI published Paenitemini, the Apostolic Constitution on Penance, February 17, 1966. It provided for abstinence from meat for all the faithful over 14 years of age. Paenitemini, Chapter III, section C, Norm II, states:
1. The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation through-out the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of “Grande Quaresima” (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rite. Their substantial observance binds gravely.
2. Apart from the faculties referred to in VI and VIII regarding the manner of fulfilling the precept of penitence on such days, abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation, while abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday or, according to local practice, on the first day of ’Great Lent’ and on Good Friday.”
Canon law follows Paenitemini.
Canon 202 § 1 “In law, a day is understood as a period consisting of 24 continuous hours and begins at midnight unless other provision is expressly made; a week is a period of 7 days; a month is a period of 30 days, and a year is a period of 365 days unless a month and a year are said to be taken as they are in the calendar.”
Canon 1249 “The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.”
Canon 1250 “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.”
Canon 1251 “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. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.”
Canon 1252 “ The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.”
Canon 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.”
In the United States
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) , then known as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated in its Pastoral Statement On Penance and Abstinence, November 18, 1966, stated regarding non-Lenten Fridays:
21. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.
22. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.
23. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.
24. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law. Our expectation is based on the following considerations:
We shall thus freely and out of love for Christ Crucified show our solidarity with the generations of believers to whom this practice frequently became,especially in times of persecution and of great poverty,no mean evidence of fidelity to Christ and His Church.
We shall thus also remind ourselves that as Christians, although immersed in the world and sharing its life, we must preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world. Our deliberate,personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.
Catholics who prefer to substitute a penance other than Friday abstinence from meat Canon 1253 suggests that other appropriate penances are “works of charity or exercises of piety.” The USCCB, in its Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, offers additional information. Second Exodus suggests as alternatives to abstinence from flesh meat, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy:
Corporal Works of Mercy
- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Shelter the homeless
- Visit the sick
- Visit those in prison
- Bury the dead
Spiritual Works of Mercy
- Admonish sinners
- Instruct the ignorant
- Counsel the doubtful
- Comfort the sorrowful
- Bear wrongs patiently
- Forgive injuries
- Pray for the living and the dead
Catholics who live outside the United States may ask their pastors to help them obtain a copy of the guidance issued by their own country’s national conference of bishops. In the absence of such guidance, Catholics outside the United States may rely entirely on Paenitemini and Canons 1249-1253, quoted above.
Catholics who seek spiritual help often pray the Great Lenten Payer of St. Ephraim.