The conversation inspired me to reread, or perhaps read properly for the first time, Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini (1966) on fast and abstinence. This led me also to read, I'm sure for the first time (to my shame) the United States Bishops' Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, issued later the same year.
I admit that I was surprised and struck by this section in Paenitemini:
The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday ... Their substantial observance binds gravely. (II. 1)(my emphasis)
I have to admit that I haven't thought much about this in my Christian life, namely that every Friday is a day of penitence, the 'substantial' observance of which binds gravely.
I don't remember learning about the gravely binding nature of Friday penitence during my 'convert instructions,' but that's certainly not an excuse. I was ignorant of many things when I went and became a Catholic, and much of this was God's mercy!
I guess, and I confess, in fact, that I probably have nourished more of a worldly idea of Friday as a day, at the end of the week, to be less strict with oneself. But this isn't the Christian idea. As the Bishops of the USA put it quite simply, "Christ died for our Salvation on Friday" and "Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year."
Just as each Sunday is like a little Easter and an extension of the same, each Friday is a little Lent. And, as we see from Pope Blessed Paul VI, the 'Lenten' penitence of each Friday is a grave obligation.
And I admit that I haven't kept this very much. That's a lot of grave obligations passed over, which I suppose are thus grave sins. Though I don't think mortal sins because as I am saying--to my shame, this much I confess--I hadn't thought a whole lot on this until now.
* * *
A discussion of Friday penitence begs, of course, the question of Friday abstinence. Following the publication of the Apostolic Constitution of Paul VI, the Pastoral Statement of the Bishops in the United States limited the obligation of Friday abstinence from meat to the Fridays of Lent. It works the same way here in Italy, I don't know since when.
In removing the obligation of Friday abstinence outside of Lent, the Bishops of the United States express a beautiful hope:
Friday, please God, will acquire among us other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat. In this connection we have foremost in mind the modern need for self-discipline in the use of stimulants and for a renewed emphasis on the virtue of temperance, especially in the use of alcoholic beverages.
It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith. (26-27)
Although I was born and later baptized well after this transition, I confess that I don't think this happened to me very strongly nor entered into my consciousness about Fridays. And I daresay maybe many Catholics can say the same.
So the question arises. Should Friday abstinence be reinstated, as the Bishops in England and Wales have done?
I don't know. Here in Italy, or at least in Capuchin Italy, Friday fish is de rigueur. But is it penitence? Is it penitence to eat spaghetti with clams instead of spaghetti with a little pancetta? Tuna steaks instead of chicken?
I don't know. But I do know that I don't experience it that way. I experience it more as a cultural thing than as having anything to do with penitence. But of course if Friday abstinence from meat is a penitence for someone, then by all means he or she observes it with the Lord's blessing. I think it surely has a value as a form of Catholic identity, which it certainly did in the past, but a strong Catholic identity, as great a value as this is and could be, is not to be confused with the religious obligation of penitence.
Of course the most important thing, as St. Paul reminds us, is that he who eats "not despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him." (Romans 14:3)
Personally, I tend to think the hope of the Bishops above is wise; the situations and styles of the faithful are too diverse for a uniform observance of Friday penitence. I think what they express about other kinds of temperance and acts of charity is worth thinking on. Probably if they were writing the document now they might add social media and 'news' to intoxicants and alcohol as things around which we might think about temperance.
* * *
Therefore, now no longer ignorant of what the Church teaches about Friday, I hope to better let go of the world's 'Friday' and to embrace the Friday on which our Lord died for us, the little Lent in the cycle of the seven days of creation.