Meatless Friday

When was the rule of not eating meat on Fridays officially promulgated for the universal Church?

The following was written by Fr. James DeViese for one of my “Ask the Pastor” columns in my place.

The more ancient traditions of the Church, as you can imagine, can be a bit obscure in terms of their origins.  And the tradition of abstinence on Fridays (especially during Lent) is no exception.  Concerning abstinence during Lent, this practice dates back at least to time of Pope Leo the Great (+ 461), who made not a short reference to what was undoubtedly an already well-established custom throughout the Western Church.  It was not uncommon in those days for people not only to abstain from meat, but also from all dairy products–a practice which is still held in many places in the Eastern Church, especially the Ukraine and Russia.  The degree to which Leo “canonized” this practice as law was presumed–at least until the 12th century when a Camaldolese monk named Gratian took it upon himself to compile the very first unified collection of canon law in 1150, which took his name (Decretum Gratiani).  At this point, we have no doubt of the canonical nature of the practice; however, it can be surmised that had this practice fallen out of use, been contradictory to another law, or had not been relatively universal at the time of Gratian, it would not have been included, as we know that Gratian took great pains to be exceptionally thorough in his work–a fact which is attested to by our modern Code of Canon Law, some canons of which are still direct quotes from Gratian!

Outside of Lent, the practice of abstinence from meat on Fridays is older, and is not confined to Fridays.  Originally, the week had two penitential days: Friday and Saturday, as attested to at the Council of Toledo (AD 400).  Friday was penitential because it is the day of the death of Our Lord.  Saturday, on the other hand, was the more important of the two penitential days because the Church retained the ancient Jewish custom that the day before major solemnities (we would call them Vigils) were days of abstinence and fasting.  This tradition of penitential days preceding major feasts was most evident in the Sacred Liturgy up until the revisions of the Roman Calendar by Pius XII (1955), John XXIII (1962), and Paul VI (1969).  As Sunday is the day of Our Lord’s Resurrection, Saturday had always been a day of penance and fasting that the Faithful could properly prepare themselves for the joy and celebration of Sunday.  The Saturday fast was suppressed in 1745 under Benedict XIV, though days of penance before feasts endured for the most part until the reform of the Liturgy in 1969.  This left Friday as the one day of abstinence during the week, which was written into the 1917 and 1983 Codes of Canon Law. 

Still to this day, there exist many options for establishing days of penance and prayer as part of the common practice of the Church.  In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite this past week, the Lenten Ember Days were observed.  These are a series of Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in a given week when extra penitential practices are observed.  In the former calendars of the Liturgy, Ember Days were observed each quarter, normally in sync with the various stages of the harvest: during the second week of Advent, the first full week of Lent, the week after Pentecost, and the second full week of September.  The Ember Days still constitute a valid option for penance throughout the year, and the current Ceremonial of Bishops even encourages local bishops to establish them “to devote the liturgy of these days to the ministry of charity” and “to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially  for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give the Lord public thanks.”  Of course, the current books do not mandate that they be held on Fridays, nor in a series of three days as past practice has been.

The law, as it currently exists, states: “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Bishops’ Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.  Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday” (c. 1251).  “The Bishops’ Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed.  In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety” (c. 1253).  The US Conference of Bishops has not established guidelines regarding proper substitutes for abstinence and fasting.  Thus it is to be expected that all Catholics between the ages of 14 and 60 observe abstinence on Fridays throughout the year.

Author: yuengerwv

Retired Catholic Priest

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