PITTSBURGH, Pa. (Pittsburgh Catholic) — Every year, one issue of the Pittsburgh Catholic draws more readers than any other — Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But it’s not the Christmas issue, or even the special Advent and Lent issues that are mailed directly to every household in the diocese.
Like it or not, it’s the annual Parish Fish Fry Guide.
Whether it’s a humble affair or a catered extravaganza, the parish fish
fry is a staple of Lenten Catholic life in Pittsburgh. Yet, in the
raucous atmosphere of the parish hall, it can be easy to miss the
precept that gives rise to the fish fry in the first place: Observing
the days of fasting and abstinence established by the church.
Throughout Lent, the Pittsburgh Catholic is taking a look at this and
the other precepts and what they mean for Catholic life.
Observing the days of fasting and abstinence established by the church
Father Lawrence DiNardo is something of a fish fry expert, in more ways
than one. As pastor of Holy Wisdom Parish on Pittsburgh’s North Side,
he has become a connoisseur of fried flounder and pierogies. And as the
diocese’s episcopal vicar for canonical services, he’s responsible for
publishing the annual Lenten regulations of fast and abstinence.
The basics of the precept are simple: Catholics are obliged to fast —
to limit themselves to one full meal or two lighter meals — and abstain
— refrain from eating meat — on certain days. Only Ash Wednesday and
Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence, and in the United States
only the Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence.
The obligation for fasting and abstinence doesn’t fall on young
children or people with health concerns, though they are encouraged to
do acts of penance instead. Barring any health concerns that would
present extenuating circumstances, the obligation of abstinence begins
at the age of 14, and the law of fasting is binding on everyone ages 18
In today’s super-sized, secular culture of consumption, the precept for
fasting and abstinence may seem out of place. But, according to Father
DiNardo, fasting and abstinence have a long history reaching back to
ancient Israel and even non-Christian traditions. In a way, the
question isn’t why Catholics happen to fast and abstain, but why others
Fasting and abstinence gives Catholics an opportunity to slow down and
draw nourishment from a different source. As acts of penance, fasting
and abstinence help us acknowledge the sin in our lives. “When we fast
and abstain we take attention away from ourselves,” Father DiNardo
said. “It isn’t meant for weight loss. The tradition is based in the
idea of denying oneself to focus on something greater.”
Before the Second Vatican Council, the regulations were much more
stringent than they are today. As older Catholics will remember, every
Friday of the year was a day of abstinence for all, and every day
during Lent was a day of fasting.
In easing the regulations, the church wasn’t trying to make the precept
more convenient, but was placing the responsibility of spirituality on
individual Catholics, Father DiNardo said. Every day of our lives
should be a day of focusing more on God and other people and less on
ourselves. Sticking to the minimum when it comes to fast and abstinence
misses an opportunity for spiritual growth.
So where does this leave the parish fish fry? Fish fries are fine, but
they need to be treated in the way that they were originally intended,
as ways to help people meet their obligations and ultimately grow in
their faith, Father DiNardo said. Stuffing yourself with fish and chips
may meet the letter of the precept, but not its spirit.
“When I look at fish fries, I don’t look at them as places to get fish
and support the church financially,” Father DiNardo said. “All these
things that we do are meant to build up community.”
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Pittsburgh Catholic(www.pittsburghcatholic.org), official newspaper of the Dicoese of Pittsburgh,Pa.