By the time you’re done reading this column, you’ll want to either join my bandwagon or run me out of town. If it’s the former, hop on; there’s plenty of room. If it’s the latter, please be gentle with the clubs and hatchets; I bruise easily.
Okay, here goes. I don’t participate in Friday fish frys, nor does my family. Sacrilege, you say? Well, hear me out. We did participate in one once, but never again. Bad fish, you wonder? Not at all. In fact, it was delicious and so were the French fries, the cole slaw and the garlic bread. All marvelous. We helped wait tables, wash dishes, and clean up afterwards and truly enjoyed working with the other volunteers. Were the people rude or obnoxious? For the most part, no. They were all wonderful people having a wonderful time filling themselves with wonderful food. And therein, dear readers, lies my objection.
They were doing this on a Friday – in particular, a Friday during Lent – and this deeply troubled my conscience.
The Church teaches us that we should fast and do penance on all Fridays throughout the year, especially during Lent :
“The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1438).
“All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church” (Canon 1250).
“In the United States, the tradition of abstaining from meat on each Friday during Lent is maintained.
“In memory of Christ’s suffering and death, the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year a penitential day. All of us are urged to prepare appropriately for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday.
“Traditionally, the canonical obligation of fasting has been understood in the Church as the taking of only one full meal a day” (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics).
“Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless (nisi) they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Canon 1251).
“All persons who have completed their 14th year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their 60th year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance” (Canon 1252).
“It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety” (Canon 1253).
When I compare these passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Code of Canon Law and our United States Bishops with what I have witnessed and heard about Friday fish frys, I see a vast and alarming — at least to me — discrepancy. I do not perceive the patrons of Friday fish frys to be fasting or performing penance (with the exception, perhaps, of the poor souls sweating over the deep fryer or dish washer). Rather, I see the opposite: revelry, refills, and refreshment. Those things are good and beautiful, but not on a Friday and certainly not on a Lenten Friday.
At my first — and only — fish fry, I instinctively felt incongruence in what I was observing. A little voice kept going off inside of me, “This is wrong. This is all wrong.” I took time to think and pray about that little voice and I came up with six reasons why I haven’t since and never will participate in a Friday fish fry:
1. Our Lord fasted for 40 days…he did not take time off. We’re called to follow his example in all things, which is why the Church promotes strict observance of the Lenten liturgical season.
2. When I was a child, our parish pastor encouraged us to hold the fast prescribed by the Church for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday on all Fridays – especially during Lent – to deepen our unity with our Suffering Savior, strengthen us against sin, and as a symbol of our love and gratitude for him. This so inspired me, that I’ve kept the resolution throughout the years.
3. Fish frys normally are “all you can eat”, thus encouraging the very gluttony and over indulgence we’re supposed to be avoiding. Additionally, those who go, go because fried fish appeals to them, and to me, that doesn’t seem to be much of a penance. I know, I too love fried fish.
4. Fish frys have the tendency toward carousal and, when the beer starts to flow too freely, debauchery. I’ll agree that many fish fry events are family-oriented and that we can and should enjoy all the marvelous things in God’s creation. But it seems to me that the atmosphere at fish frys collides with the atmosphere of penitence we’re asked to foster on Fridays.
5. Fish frys are often used as fund raisers. It strikes me as morally wrong to capitalize on our Lord’s suffering and death, on a sacred season of the Catholic Church, in order to make money.
6. This puts the groups that use and promote fish frys as fund raisers — whether intentionally or unwittingly — in the position of contributing to the weaknesses of the Christian faithful, opening them to the possibility of the sin of gluttony and breaking the Lenten Friday fast.
Do I think that those who participate in Friday fish frys are evil? Of course not! Rather, it seems to me that most of us simply don’t understand the dangers that lie behind the fish fry phenomenon and it’s contradiction to what the Catholic Church teaches. Those who do know seem to either look the other way or rationalize that it’s “for a good cause” and a legitimate way to abstain from meat. They’re good people with good intentions, good causes to support, and good reasons to support them. Even so, I can’t reconcile within myself the means by which the goal is accomplished.
I certainly won’t hold a grudge against people who participate in Friday fish frys. The decision is theirs to make. I have no right to judge, but I do have an obligation to speak up when I perceive something out of kilter with our Catholic faith — as do all of us. When we get each other thinking about these things — even when it’s a touchy subject — we all move closer to God.
(© 2011 Marge Fenelon)