Why do we fast, abstain from meat during Lent?
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 to 59.
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 don’t.
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.”
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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.
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