For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Lent is often associated with eating fish on Fridays, since we are required to refrain from eating meat. But abstaining from meat is more than a custom that we follow; it is a practice that strengthens our spiritual awareness.
Blessed Pope John Paul II described fasting as “obviously something very different from a therapeutic diet, but in its own way it can be considered therapy for the soul.”
“In fact,” he added, “practiced as a sign of conversion, it helps one in the interior effort of listening to God.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the difference between fasting and abstinence, fasting means significantly reducing the amount of food that you eat in a day. Abstinence, on the other hand, involves not consuming any amount of a specific food or pleasure that you decide to sacrifice. This is why we differentiate between not eating meat on Fridays in Lent and the more intense obligation of both fasting and abstaining on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The point of these practices, as Blessed John Paul II and other popes have said, is to discipline our bodies and strengthen our spiritual muscles.
Most Catholics are familiar with not eating meat on Fridays in Lent, but what is not well known is that we are called to practice penance every Friday of the year. Besides improving our spiritual awareness, engaging in penance unites us with Jesus in his suffering.
We know from the Scriptures and Church tradition that Jesus died on Friday, so when we do not eat meat or we practice another form of penance on Friday, we are able to identify with Christ in his death on the cross and unite our sufferings with his.
Younger American Catholics may not realize that refraining from eating meat every Friday of the year was standard until 1966. At that time, the U.S. bishops decided to allow people to choose another act of penance or charity or to continue to abstain from meat. In the 1980s, bishops in other parts of the English-speaking world followed suit.
Unfortunately, the result of this change was that many people stopped engaging in penance all together, thus losing the chance to calm the noise generated by their appetites so as to focus on listening to God’s still, small voice in their hearts.
In September 2011, one year after Pope Benedict XVI visited Great Britain, the bishops of England and Wales decided to reinstitute the practice of not eating meat on Fridays.
The beauty of this common sacrifice is that it unites us not only individually but as a community of believers with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross; it strengthens our bond as Catholics, as believers who are united in pursuing holiness.
Will Desmond, a 20-year-old from Sussex, England, described in an online video how his experience of feeling hunger connected him in a small way with 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.”
As we continue to journey through Lent, I urge all of you to increase your prayer, acts of charity and penance so that you can hear Christ more clearly. Most especially, I invite you to return to the fruitful practice of abstaining from meat, meditating on Jesus’ passion, or engaging in acts of charity every Friday of the year.
May God the Father draw you closer to himself through the sacrifice of his Son, and illuminate your hearts with the love of the Holy Spirit this Lent.