Because each Friday recalls the crucifixion of Our Lord, it is set aside as a special day of penance. The Church does not prescribe that fish must be eaten on Fridays. It never did. Abstinence has always meant the giving up of meat rather than the eating of fish as a substitute. What the Church does require, is that on Fridays Catholics abstain from meat or some other form of food or to observe some other form of penance laid down by the Bishops’ Conference.
Why is Penance important?
It helps me to imitate Christ. It is a response to Christ’s call to take up the cross. It is a participation in the suffering of Our Lord. It is an expression of inner conversion. It is a reparation for sin.
The form of Penance we adopt each Friday is a matter of personal choice and does not have to take the same form every Friday. Failure to undertake this penance on a particular Friday would not constitute a sin. However, Penance is part of the life of every Christian and the intention to do Penance on Friday is of obligation.
How should Catholics do Penance on Fridays?
The Bishops’ conference of England and Wales decided to re-establish, from Friday the 16th of September 2011, the practice that this penance should be fulfilled simply by abstaining from meat and by uniting this to prayer. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food in which they regularly partake.
Previous to Friday the 16th of September 2011, in one or more of the following ways:
- By abstaining from meat or some other food.
- By abstaining from alcoholic drink, smoking or some form of amusement.
- By making the special effort involved in Family Prayer, taking part in the Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament, or praying the Stations of the Cross.
- By fasting from all food for a longer period than usual and perhaps by giving what is saved in this way to the needy at home and abroad.
- By making a special effort to help somebody who is poor, sick, old or lonely.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
Lent is the traditional season of renewal and repentance in the Church. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are to be observed as days of fasting and abstinence.
Fasting means that the amount of food we eat is considerably reduced.
Abstinence means that we give up a particular kind of food or drink or some form of amusement.
In the place of Abstinence other forms of Penance (as with Friday Penance) may be substituted.