14 February 2008

Who's hungry for fish?

Why do we eat fish on Fridays (in Lent)?

It may well be at this time of year that the most frequently asked question of Catholics concerns the eating of fish on Fridays during Lent.

First, we should recall that Catholics are obliged to refrain from meat on every Friday during the year (canon 1251). There are, though, as is often the case with canon law, exceptions: unless the Conference of Bishops decides otherwise or a particular Friday happens to be a Solemnity.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has decided to allow Catholics to eat meat on Fridays outside of Lent if – and here’s the kicker – they perform a different act of penance in its place. I know. You probably haven’t heard this before, but now you have. And now that you know you have to follow it. Sorry. It’s what I do.

The second exception reminds me of an episode in the life of my favorite saint, Francis of Assisi.

The Poverello loved Christmas more than any other Feast or Solemnity and he encouraged great festivity for the Nativity of the Lord (but he still put ashes on his food so as not to enjoy it too much [I’ll follow him in some things but I won’t go that far]).

One particular Christmas one of the brothers didn’t think he should eat meat at Christmas because it fell on a Friday. Francis reprimanded him severely, saying that even the walls should eat meat on Christmas and – if they couldn’t (he must have been a bit delirious from lack of food) – that the meat should be smeared on the walls of the rooms of the house (kids, don’t try that at home).

Now, if you happen to live in a parish or a Diocese under the patronage of Saint Patrick you can eat meat on his feast if it should fall on a Friday because his feast – for you – is a solemnity. For everybody else, you have to ask your Bishop for permission. But, really, I don’t think Patrick would mind if you didn’t have corned beef on his feast day and wanted one more day. I can’t understand why anybody would eat corned beef anyway, but that’s just me.

Where was I going? Oh, yes.

Second, we should note that we are not required to eat fish on Fridays. We are merely told to abstain from meat. In the Latin, we are told to abstain from carnis, which from the most ancient of times has always meant the meat of things that walk on the ground.

Now, fish resembles meat to some extent and Catholics, being the clever folks they often are, knew that they couldn’t eat meat but that fish were not mentioned. So they kept the rules and ate fish. Ah, yes, loopholes are a glorious thing, aren’t they?

It has absolutely nothing to do with fishmongers needing more money and talking to the Pope. That’s a bunch of rubbish from people too lazy to do a bit of investigating.

Catholics eat fish on Fridays because they can’t eat meat (and apparently we don’t want to eat a meal of only grains, fruits and vegetables). Personally, I love fish, especially a tuna with lemon and dill…

(My mind is wandering quite a bit right now. I wonder if I’ve had too much Dr Pepper?)

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon an intriguing explanation as to why we eat fish on Fridays but not meat, and one that I rather like. The explanation comes from – I believe – the fifteenth century (though it might be sixteenth), from one John Myre in his Liber Festivalis:
For when God, for Adam’s sin, cursed the earth and the land, he cursed not the
water; wherefore it is lawful for a man to eat in Lent that which cometh of the
Ponder that, and try that answer the next time somebody asks you about your fish sandwich.

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