Pork Roll, Lent, and Catholic identity

George Weigel

A few weeks before Ash Wednesday, an Associated Press squib with Lenten implications appeared in the Washington Post sports section:

* YANKEES: New York’s Class AA affiliate in Trenton, N.J., will change its name from the Thunder to the Pork Roll on Fridays this season. The pork roll is a New Jersey staple, served on breakfast sandwiches and as a burger topping.

For those unfortunates who didn’t grow up in the I-95 corridor between the Holland Tunnel and the southern outskirts of Baltimore, I venture to explain.

“Taylor Pork Roll,” also known as “Taylor Ham” south and west of the Delaware River, is a compound of the ground-up and sugar-cured bits of a pig of which the pig has no cause to be proud, tightly encased in a canvas wrapper. Fried or grilled, it’s salty and greasy and a lot of other wonderful things frowned on by the food police. In my wild adolescence, I used to cut a half-inch slab off the loaf, impale it on a fork, and roast it over an electronic burner in my parents’ kitchen: the ideal post-school snack before wrestling with Cicero’s Latin syntax and the mysteries of Algebra II. I still indulge in it occasionally, to my wife’s olfactory displeasure, and I always order it in a diner when breakfasting in the Garden State.

But only the perfidious Yankees – “the Yanqui enemy of mankind,” as the Sandinista national anthem in 1980s Nicaragua neatly put it – would have a farm team that changed its name to “Trenton Pork Roll” on Fridays.

Ad primum, pork roll was always consumed as a post-Mass treat on Sundays, and rigorously avoided on Fridays. Ad secundum, flaunting pork roll in the face of devout Catholics by emblazoning it on jerseys at Arm & Hammer Park on Fridays is an invitation to the divine wrath, to which the Thunder/Pork Roll is already vulnerable because of its major league affiliation.

So in solidarity with fellow-Catholics in the Diocese of Trenton, I propose that we all continue the Lenten practice of Friday abstinence from meat, which commences on February 16 this year, until such time as the Thunder/Pork Roll’s management acknowledges its miscue and switches the name-switch to Sundays. (If the Thunder wish to become the Trenton Fish Fry on Fridays, fine by me, although as a marketing tool that would likely work better in Wisconsin.)

Friday abstinence was once a defining mark of the practicing Catholic, and Lenten pork roll raillery aside, it ought to be again. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is not renowned for its traditionalism, but some years ago the bishops mandated a year-round return to Friday abstinence south of Hadrian’s Wall, and good for them for doing so. If our baptisms really set us apart for Christ, then we should live a different temporal rhythm than the rest of the world: not to advertise our righteousness but to remind ourselves, each other, and those who might be curious about these Catholics and their ways that we’re, well, different. And at a moment in Western cultural history in which the tsunami of the Culture of Me threatens to overwhelm everything, putting down behavioral markers of difference is no small thing. From Friday abstinence, who knows what might grow?

Lent is the perfect time, or as Isaiah 49.8 puts it, the “acceptable time,” to begin a journey of Christian difference. As I explain in my book on a venerable Lenten tradition, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, the Forty Days should be an annual re-catechumenate for the entire Church: six and a half weeks in which the already-baptized join the catechumens who will enter the Church at Easter in walking the road to Calvary with the Lord, in order to be empowered for missionary discipleship in the Easter waters of baptism with which we are all blessed. Little things count along that pilgrim way, including small self-denials like eating differently on Fridays (and almsgiving, and intensified prayer, the other two great Lenten disciplines). Try it.

And, of course, Lent, which coincides with that other season of new disciplines known as “spring training,” is the acceptable time for the Trenton Thunder to get with the program, do a mea maxima culpa, and agree to become the Trenton Pork Roll on Sundays.

COMING UP: Men without conviction, churches without people

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Europe’s wholesale abandonment of its Christian faith is often explained as the inevitable by-product of modern social, economic, and political life. But there is far more to the story of Euro-secularization than that, as three ecclesiastics, a Presbyterian minister and two Italian priests, demonstrated this past Christmas.

The minister in question was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Derek Browning. In his Yuletide message to his disappearing flock, Dr. Browning confessed that in his “darker moments,” he sometimes wondered whether “…the world have been a better place without [Jesus]. If there was no Jesus, and therefore no Christianity, would there have been no Crusades? Would there have been no Spanish Inquisition?” (Dr. Browning didn’t contemplate the possibility that, without Jesus, there would have been no iconoclastic destruction of Scotland’s ancient and beautiful Catholic churches, or no mass burnings of “witches” by his forebears in the kirk; but that, perhaps, would have been cutting a bit too close to the bone.)

Then there was Father Fredo Olivero of the Church of San Rocco di Torino in the Archdiocese of Turin. At Christmas midnight Mass, Don Fredo substituted the syrupy Italian pop-religious tune, Dolce sentire, for the Creed, explaining, “Do you know why I do not say the Creed? Because I do not believe it….after many years I understood that it was something I did not understand and that I could not accept. So let’s sing something else that says the essential things of life…”

Which, evidently, do not include the confession of faith that Jesus is Lord and Savior.

Not to be outdone by those uppity Piedmontese in Turin, a priest of Genoa, Father Paolo Farinella, announced in the leftist Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, that he had canceled his parish Masses for January 1 (the Octave of Christmas and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God) and January 6 (the Epiphany). Why? Because, according to Don Paolo, Christmas is now “a fairy tale from the nativity scene with lullabies and bagpipes, the exclusive support of a capitalist and consumerist economy, transforming the whole of Christianity into civil religion.”

So there. No Mass.

These three episodes illustrate a larger point: “secularization” is not something that just happened to western Europe, like the Black Death. The radical secularization that has transformed Christianity’s heartland into the most religiously arid half-continent on the planet has at least as much to do with the craven surrender of ministers of the Gospel to theological and political fads, and their consequent loss of faith, as it does with the impact of urbanization, mass education, and the industrial revolution on Europeans’ understanding of themselves.

If the Gospel is not preached with conviction – the convictions that humanity is in need of salvation and that Jesus is the Savior who liberates us into the fullness of our humanity and gives us eternal life – then the Gospel will not be believed.

If ministers of the Gospel indulge in gratuitous virtue-signaling by promoting the worst of black legends, as if the sum total of Christianity’s impact on world history is embodied by “the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition,” why would anyone come to their churches or listen to whatever’s being offered there by way of I’m-OK-You’re-OK therapeutic balm?

If ministers of the Gospel cannot challenge the world’s distortions of the Gospel with the truth of the Gospel, but fall back instead on penny-ante pseudo-Marxist clichés, is it any wonder that their church pews are empty?

Christianity is dying in western Europe. There are many reasons for that, including the complicity of many churchmen in the ideological awfulness that turned mid-20th century Europe into a slaughterhouse. But the Gospel has power, and those who believe that, and preach it in the conviction that it can transform and ennoble lives, can still get a hearing. Indeed, as post-modernity decomposes into ever more bizarre forms of irrationality, the cleansing, liberating truth of the Gospel and the vision of life well-lived found in the Beatitudes ought to be a compelling offer.

But the offer must be made. And it won’t be made by churchmen who wonder aloud whether the world wouldn’t have been better off without Jesus, or who substitute treacle for the Creed, or who throw public hissy-fits rather than celebrating the Eucharist.