The practice of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays has returned to the Catholic Church in England and Wales after an absence of 27 years.
“I think it’s a very good idea,” father-of-three Dominic Schofield told EWTN News. He and his wife Margaret, along with their three young daughters, were about to sit down to a Friday dinner of fried fish in their London home.
“Over the past 20 to 30 years we’ve perhaps lost touch with some of the more grounded Catholic practices and that, in turn, has chipped away at belief in more fundamental things too. So the restoration of this ancient Catholic tradition can help reverse that trend,” Schofield said.
The decision to reinstate the custom was announced by the bishops of England and Wales in May. September 16 was chosen as the reintroduction date because it marks the first anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in the United Kingdom.
The practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays was traditionally a way of remembering that Jesus Christ died on that day of the week. However, the Church in England and Wales abandoned the centuries-old custom back in 1984.
At the time, the bishops stressed that other forms of Friday penances were also acceptable. The result, though, seemed to be that the practice of Friday penance fell away altogether.
“I think what hadn't been envisaged at the time was that because people wouldn't be carrying out the same act together that this might lead to the loss of penance in people's lives,” said Fr. Marcus Stock, General Secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, in a Sept. 16 interview with the BBC.
The bishops also hope the custom will help draw others to the Catholic Church. In a statement earlier this month, they observed that “traditional Catholic devotions such as making the sign of the cross with care and reverence, praying the Angelus, saying a prayer before and after our meals, to name only a few,” can be “a powerful call to faith.”
“I’d agree,” says Dominic Schofield, “the decision by the bishops will have great apostolic value.
“For example, when somebody now asks ‘Do you have any special dietary requirements?’ we can now say, ‘Yes, I can’t eat meat on a Friday. I’m a Catholic!’”
Although the Catholic Church has never stipulated what food should be consumed instead of meat, a general tradition emerged of eating fish on a Friday. The penance applies to all those over the age of 14, although the sick, elderly, pregnant, manual workers and seafarers are exempted.
The Bishops' Conference of England and Wales also has a guide to the new Friday penance on their website.