Two events to reflect on: One very recent, one just over a year old.
MAY 2010- On his way to Fatima, Pope Benedict stuns reporters by breaking with the Vatican's 2000 statement that the prophecies of Fatima are now fulfilled by telling them, "We would be mistaken to think that Fatima's prophetic mission is complete."
RECENT- The Bishops Conference of England and Wales announced in May that they were restoring the requirement that Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays, a practice that goes back into effect this week.
What do Fatima and abstaining from meat on Fridays have to do with anything you ask? Simply this: You will have no trouble finding Catholics praying the rosary in obedience to the requests of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, but our acceptance of her message is quite selective. We have picked and chosen the rosary. We have discarded, ignored and forgotten her call to penance.
When was the last time you heard a priest preach a homily about the importance of doing penance for our sins? Then again, doing penance for sins requires that we be aware that we are sinful creatures, and that kind of preaching seems to be verboten these days.
The very notion of the need for frequent confession is too "preconciliar" and "rigid" for many of today's clergy who were educated in seminaries in the grip of Vatican II's identity crisis. Yet, the very Act of Contrition we are required to pray at Confession promises that we will do penance:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.Amen.
How many of us keep that promise? How many of us perfunctorily murmur our three Hail Mary's and move on to our next pursuit of a good time?
Our fallen world presents us with no shortage of opportunities to do penance, but I would like to focus on an easy way (for most) that reinforces our identity as Catholics: Abstaining from meat on Friday.
1) Guess what? The rule for abstaining from meat on Friday was not abolished by Vatican II. In fact, the revised Code of Canon Law from 1983 tells us:
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.
2) The United States Bishops Conference has decided that we are only required to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent, but that Fridays are still penitential days (which is the universal law of the Church). The bishops have simply said that individuals can choose what sort of penance they will do.
Now, let's look at human nature: Are we likely to do something we don't want to do without something or someone to remind us?
Friday is the day that Jesus died on the cross. It's the day that He denied himself unto death for our sins. It's the day that the Son of God, who never committed a sin of any kind, suffered a horrendously painful and shameful ordeal--an ordeal he could have easily escaped from--voluntarily, to open the possibility of Heaven for us.
Our culture tells us that Friday is the beginning of the weekend (Thank God It's Friday!). We have casual Friday. We have half days of work on Friday. We have the "weekender" edition of newspapers beginning on Fridays. Friday is the beginning of a three-day party for modern man.
But we are not called to be like everyone else. Instead, the Bible tells us:
Do not be conformed to this world..."
Do not love the world or the things of the world...
Friendship with the world is enmity to God...
...for men will be lovers of themselves...lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people, turn away.
There is no reason that we need to be marching off to the steakhouse every Friday evening. And, if for some reason, our friends invite us, remember, most menus also offer fish (and salmon is healthier than beef anyway).
When Friday comes, do our non-Catholic friends even know that we are Catholic? How can they tell? Are we keeping our promise to observe the laws of the Church by keeping Friday as a day of penance?
Penance does not have to be as hard as a hair shirt and whips. An easy way for all of us to do penance every Friday is to remember to abstain from meat. In doing so, we remember Who suffered and died for our sins.