While other Bishops and Archbishops have seen fit to grant a dispensation from the law of abstinence on the Fridays of Lent to allow Catholics to eat meat this year on the memorial of Saint Patrick, His Excellency the Most Reverend Thomas John Paprocki has decided not to grant such a dispensation from the law. For reasons unclear to me, the State Journal-Register has decided this matter to be worthy of the front page.
In a letter to the priests of the Diocese, the Vicar General indicated the Bishop's reasoning when he noted the decision was made in "honor of the heroic virtue and sacrifice of St. Patrick in his life as a disciple." Such a rationale is in keeping with the mind of Saint Anthony of Padua who once preached these words:
We celebrate their feasts, so as to receive from their lives a pattern of living. How ridiculous, to want to honor the saints on their days with eating, when we know that they got to heaven by fasting! If we do not imitate the saints, but rather love the world and its glory; if we pamper our bodies with pleasure and amass money: then their justice will prove that we ought to be condemned (Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, 11).
Indeed, it is from this mindset that the Vicar General encouraged the faithful of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois to honor the patron saint of Ireland, “and Almighty God, with the sacrifice of abstinence from eating meat.”
Bishop Paprocki, of course, is not alone in deciding not grant a dispensation this year. By my count of the 196 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States of America, according to a list compiled and updated by RoccoPalmo, the faithful in only 68 dioceses and archdiocese have been a granted a dispensation this year; that means that 128 bishops and archbishops have not granted a dispensation.
The different disciplines across the nation – and even within the same state – have led some people to wonder why the Church does not have the same policy across the board. To this I would simply say that the universal policy is to abstain from meat.
But even the universal law provides an exception to this requirement for those members of the faithful who belong to a diocese or a parish named in honor of Saint Patrick. For them, March 17th is not simply the liturgical memorial of a saint, but a liturgical solemnity and Catholics are not bound by the law of abstinence on solemnities (which is why everyone can eat meat when the Solemnity of Saint Joseph – March 19th – falls on a Friday of Lent).
Bishops have different policies and disciplines in this matter because the Code of Canon Law provides them the power to grant dispensations from the law because of the power of binding and loosing that Christ Jesus gave to his Church. The use of this authority is an act of prudential judgment; some bishops judge it useful to dispense from the law of abstinence and some (many more) do not.
I have never really understood why some people get upset if their bishop decides not to grant them a dispensation to eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day. Most – but not all – Catholics in the U.S.A. who want to eat meat to celebrate Saint Patrick want to eat corned beef, but the Irish do not eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day because corned beef is actually not an Irish dish, but a Jewish dish which Irish immigrants seem to have picked up in New York City.
Better in this instance, I think, to follow the insight of Saint Anthony of Padua, though I should perhaps say that I dislike both corned beef and cabbage.