Six Reasons Why I Don’t Participate in Friday Fish Frys


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)


About Author

Marge is a CatholicLane columnist.

  • Tarheel

    I fall into the latter category. But I won’t beat you up with anything. I can see and understand you point but perhaps it is how a fish fry is conducted. And as far as the work goes, is the work volunteers do any more than they would do at their normal jobs.

    But I will still invite you to the fish fry at our Parish this Friday.

  • Father Maurer

    I admire your desire to embrace both the law and spirit of Lenten practices! We would do well to emphasize them even in the midst of getting together as a community for fish frys or soup suppers. It is discouraging to see people overindulging themselves on a day of penitence.

    I would like to point out that your second reason mixes & matches two different Church laws – that of abstinence from meat on Fridays during Lent and that of fasting.

    Abstinence from meat on Fridays does not require us to eat only “one main meal and two smaller ones that together do not exceed the amount of the one”. The language you’re using is in reference to fasting, which is only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, while the USCCB (from the authority given it by CIC 1253) has defined abstinence to be strictly the giving up of meat.

    This isn’t to say that your observations don’t hold (on the contrary!), but that the letter of the law doesn’t require fasting on all Fridays of Lent.

  • Thanks for the article…… makes one think even if we don’t agree….

  • Bounty

    I see and understand the points made in this piece. I think they’re fine for an individual. However, publicly, these kinds of read-between-the-lines considerations for holiness seem to lend themselves more to scrupulosity than righteousness. We try to attend one fish fry during Lent and I see it as a sacrifice because of the cost. If it’s profiting on the Lord’s passion, then so is selling catfish at the grocery store during Lent.

  • nickkname

    You had a point up until you made a hasty generalization based on your personal experience, and it would still be a hasty generalization if you said your case was universal in just the United States.

    But I’ve made plenty of hasty generalizations myself. One way to avoid them is to focus on your case and see if it holds true elsewhere – which of course requires study and prayer.

    Finally, if anyone tells you “If you think fish frys are so bad, come up with a better penitential idea yourself!” or the like, just reply “It doesn’t take an artist to recognize terrible art, and it doesn’t take terrible art to make an artist.”

    But it is always good to report evil to the pastor, or Bishop, so he can take care of it. If he asks what can be done, maybe give some good suggestions. That’s the difference between someone whining and someone asking; they have the same goal in mind but one is evil means while the other is good means.

  • Fish fries are a cultural phenomenon in the U.S., and I don’t attend them (can’t afford it on my limited income). But if you do choose to attend, there’s no reason you can’t eat and drink in moderation and uphold both the letter and spirit of the law. You can also perform another act of penance on a Friday when you attend a fish fry. The social benefits of a fish fry seem to outweigh any possible negative consequences when you consume in moderation.

    My favorite Lenten meal is baked fish and fresh bread. This is the meal Jesus himself served His disciples after the Resurrection (John 21:9-13). Eating, even eating well, can be a spiritual exercise (and believe me, I don’t go hungry very often). We can be grateful to God for His bounty even while recalling the actions of our Lord. I think that if gratitude permeates all our actions, we are always pleasing to God.

  • Tarheel

    As I read the comments my mind drifts away and I start thinking of the fish fry at our parish this Friday. Makes me hungry already. 5 big pieces of fried catfish (Southern Style) fries (or a baked spud), Cole slaw and cheese grits.

    Sorry PrairieHawk I can’t do the baked fish route. But hey if you come to Mobile I will gladly buy you a meal and we can enjoy it together.

  • I do love a good catfish!

  • A columnist’s job is to provoke thought. Judging from the comments here and those I’ve received on Facebook and in my personal email, it looks like I’ve done just that. If I would have written a mousy little piece, no one would have been enticed to think and speak up.

    I’m grateful for all of your comments -both those who agree and disagree with me – and hope they keep coming. Now we’ve all got one another thinking! As soon as we become complacent about our faith, we’ve begun to lose the battle with Satan.

    Fr. Mauer, thank you for pointing out the glitch in my original reason #2. I’ve since revised it and hope that the new version offers more clarity.

  • Father Maurer

    It does! Thanks for taking the time.

  • Mary Kochan

    I need to find out where these carousing, beer-drinking Catholics are. This makes my parish sound downright boring.

  • Mary:

    Clearly your parish has been infiltrated by Southern Protestant thought.

    Everyone knows that “Where there are four Catholics, there’s a ‘fifth'”!

    In Christ,

  • Tarheel

    Mary. Just come to Mobile. I extend the same offer to you for a catfish dinner as I did for PrairieHawk. I wouldn’t consider us a “carousing” group but there is definitely some fellowshipping happening!

  • Mary Kochan

    Tarheel, If I am ever headed to Mobile, I’ll be sure to let you know! Thanks!

  • Minimarathonmom

    I don’t go to our parish fish frys either, but my six reasons are a little different:

    1) too expensive–by the time I feed my crew at a fish fry, we’d have to pass on the Sunday collection basket!
    2) I don’t really like fish. (I make an exception for steamed Maryland blue crab in old bay) I’d much rather a good potato soup (call me Irish….)
    3) Fried food is really bad for you…a minute on the lips a lifetime everywhere else!
    4) The fish frys at my parish are at the same time as the Stations of the Cross…and they get a better crowd in the cafeteria than in the church…even IF our whole family is in the church!
    5) I love the fellowship aspect, but if we are going to fellowship over a lenten meal, lets all bring a pot of meatless soup and a big loaf of homemade bread. (I’ll bring potato soup, of course!)

    What I find really interesting is that in our area, it isn’t just the Catholic churches that are doing Friday fish frys. The Methodists, the Presbyterians, and Lutherans all offer Friday fish frys, too. And all year round! What’s with that?

  • goral

    An affluent nation with a McDonalds style of eating and a protestant style of singing is incapable of understanding this whole notion of Lenten Friday penitence. A democratic style church doesn’t help either.

    Allow me to expound:
    Affluence is a desirable state but Christ did say that a lean camel can pass through the eye of the needle while a fat man can’t. (paraphrasing)
    McDonalds found a way to capitalize on the fasting Catholics and now feasting, I mean fasting Catholic parishes want that business back. In heaven and at McDonalds there is no beer, but the church hall serves it here.
    Finally a culture that can not passionately sing, has little passion for much else, food is the exception.
    The Passion of Christ calls for passionate souls.
    When the Church defines fasting in minimalist terms then the thrust and the tendency of actual practice will always be towards minimizing it some more.
    Why? Read my first paragraph.

  • Some interesting things to think about in these past few comments! I’d like to hear the experiences of convert Catholics regarding the observance of Lent in Protestant denominations.

    Tarheel, I had to chuckle at your invitation. Catfish is the only fish I DON’T like. You’ll have to try to entice me with something else. If I’m ever in Mobile, I’ll gladly join you for seafood, just not at a Friday Fish Fry.

  • Tarheel

    Marge I am convert. I didn’t hear about Lent until I was exposed to the Catholic Church in 1975. But I can tell that the small town I grew up in N.C. what few restaurants we had, served fish of some type. We even had fish for lunch in schools. And this is even stranger now that I think about as the only Catholic Church we had, had about 20 members.

    But when you come to Mobile we have plenty of great seafood. Fried shrimp, fried crawfish tails, oysters, tilipia, flounder, crab claws, clams, mussels, and more than I can think of without getting hungry. We even have some of the best seafood gumbo you have ever tasted. Oh yeah right now crawfish are just coming into season so hot spicy mudbugs are on the menu. And you can wash all that down with a soda pop with the foam on top!

    I may be from NC but 1/2 of me is Cajun

    • Noteworthy

      What a silly article. I hope you’re taking on greater topics than this! Of all the things to pick on, community coming together to celebrate Christ’s Passion. We are lucky kids today know who Jesus is. Any of Christ’s Churches should not have folks discouraged by reading fluff such as this and not attending mass or Church dinners. The Catholic Church has in many states only recently begun the Fish Fries of old. And it brings back Parishioners. Where’s the harm in renewed vigor for our faith.
      We all know the real reason less people attend mass and it has nothing to do with a glass of (as Christ also served, wine)/beer and a Fish Fry.
      Let us rebuild our numbers in community centered activities minus the criticism.

  • Kim

    Finally someone else who shares my disgust with the practice. Maybe it’s just my little corner of the world, but fish frys here are also times to gamble. Raffles, lottery tickets, etc. It makes my blood boil.