Re-establishing Friday Penance


Friday 16 September 2011 marks the re-establishment of Friday penance for Catholics in England and Wales.

For many Catholics this will take the form of abstaining from eating meat.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols said:

'The Bishops’ Conference has decided to invite Catholics to understand again the importance of self-denial which springs from that self-sacrificing love of Christ who denied himself that we might have life.'

“What better day than Friday because it’s the day on which our Lord died and made that ultimate self-sacrifice.'

'Not eating meat on a Friday is a gesture, a reminder of something that tells us every week we have a very particular take on life. The gift of faith. It’s something we treasure.'

'If someone is a vegetarian, please give up something else, so that together as a family, as schools, communities, in public where we can, we have a common cause, we have a habit we learn together and support each other in.”

“We are not trying to make a public point. We are trying first of all to be closer to Christ. In our openness to the things of God and in our sense of Christ being with us at every moment.

Abstaining from meat on Fridays

Will Desmond from Sussex, shares his reasons for abstaining from meat on Fridays and the positive effect that it has had on his life.

Will said:

“Fasting gets rid of all the junk in my mind so that I’m just able to sit and just be with God. It’s like giving myself a spiritual workout so that I can grow these spiritual muscles and also it means being able to increase my self control.”

“I’ve recognised quite recently that when I sit down to eat, and I suddenly think, ‘Should I be fasting?’ Then a sense of relief comes over me as I realise, ‘No, not today.’ As a result I’ve become so much more grateful for the food that is in front of me and so much more aware of those who do go without.”

“I think the feeling of hunger, what it can also do is put the Cross in perspective because that little suffering that I experience,  I start to realise the suffering that Christ went through. It’s obviously so much more than my hunger and so my love for him, my appreciation of what he did increases a huge amount. The Cross was a sacrifice of love and I suppose my fasting can be a sacrifice of love on my part for Jesus but also for others as well.”

“It’s just about a journey of growing in relationship so you know, if I fail this time, there’s always next Friday! So I encourage everybody and yourself just to give it a try, just to take that step of faith.”

An act of common witness

This act of common witness comes into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 - the day the Church in England and Wales marks the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.

Since the Bishops of England and Wales announced this decision in May 2011, a number of questions have been asked. To help answer these questions the Bishops’ Conference has produced a list of frequently asked questions with answers that will help to explain the reasons for the reintroduction of this penance.

The full document which includes further questions and answers, as well as a liturgical explanation of the Friday Penance can be downloaded from the link at the bottom of this page.

Questions and answers include:

Why are we obliged to practice penitence on Fridays?
From the earliest centuries of the Church’s history, Friday was dedicated to the memory of the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, as a day on which we should make a
special effort to practice penitence. The seasons and days of penitence in the course of the Liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday) are therefore intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice.

Does this mean that we should eat fish on Fridays?
There is no requirement for us to eat fish instead of meat on a Friday. Our act of abstinence does not mean that we have to eat another particular type of food as the regular substitute for meat on a Friday. The precise goal of penitence is not simply the avoidance of meat or its substitution with another food but relating the external and common act of penance we do to inner conversion, prayer and works of charity.

Are the Bishops placing a greater obligation on Catholics in England and Wales? Apart from the exceptions above, will it be a ‘sin’ to eat meat on a Friday after the Bishops’ decision takes effect  in September?
The obligation on Catholics in England and Wales to do penance on a Friday will be the same after Friday 16 September 2011 as it was before that date. The only change is that the Bishops have determined that the requirement by all the faithful to do penance on a Friday will be fulfilled by abstaining from meat.

Whilst failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday would not constitute a ‘sin’ as such, the Vatican has previously made it clear that it is our duty as Catholics to undertake penance on a Friday. It is more a question of intending to ‘carry a small cross for Christ’ than about abstaining from meat. The person who knowingly decides not to undertake any Friday penance at all is probably ‘sinning’; the person who accidentally eats a ham sandwich for lunch is probably not.