Tuesday 25 August 2015

Mad Trad 7: F is for Fish on Friday

Servant of God Catherine Doherty (photo by Thomas Merton)
Good morning! It's Traddy Tuesday, the day I riff on traditions held dear by Catholics not interested
in singing a New Church into being. I was at lunch with a bunch of such like-minded Catholics a couple of Sundays ago, and a red-haired chap rose unsteadily to his feet and drank a toast to us and our reactionary views. Honestly, we are just a bunch of unhelpful counter-revolutionaries, and no doubt we would be first up against the wall were our critics not so totally opposed to the death penalty--for people who make it out of the delivery room in one piece, that is.

That said, even we are lightweights in regards to the ancient Christian practice of fasting. When it comes to fasting, we Latins are WIMPS compared to the Greeks. Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty was shocked and stunned when she converted from Russian Orthodoxy to the Roman Catholic Church and discovered that not even pre-V2 Catholic priests fasted that much, never mind the laity. And as we can all see, there are an awful lot of obese Catholic priests.

My friend Berenike once told me with great loyalty and strictness that "A fat priest is the pride of his village," but I think this says more about the generosity of the village than the spiritual well-being of the priest.  My own pastor is rumoured to live on nothing but soup. This is probably untrue, but such pious legends stiffen the resolve of traditional Latins not wanting to feel like lightweights next to the strictly fasting Greeks.

Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty is a hero of social justice activists in Canada, so it is odd that fasting gets a bad rap there. It is especially odd when you consider that periodically "Fasting for the Third World" comes into fashion, and you are invited to pay £5 for a lunch of rice and gloomily contemplate what it would be like to have to eat it every day. However, I heartily doubt anyone in the Third World eats plain unsalted Uncle Ben's Converted Rice. Paying £5 for bowl of scrumptious basmati cooked by a Pakistani grandmother would be something more like. Meanwhile, the best fasting food I can think of is AIR.

But to move from fasting to abstinence, I am terrible bored by people who tell me that "fish is a luxury" and "I hate meat, so giving it up on Fridays is meaningless." Fish is not necessary a luxury; it certainly isn't if it comes frozen in a box or mashed up in a tin, and  if you live by the sea, the fresh version can indeed be cheaper than meat. B.A. and I eat cheap Scottish salmon at least once a week whereas beef is a very rare treat. I admire vegetarians, those champion abstainers, so when they shrill that Friday abstinence traditions seem empty to them, I praise them for their 24/7 abstinence. Meanwhile, if they consumed nothing on Friday but bread and water, they might benefit.

Okay, so without any further ado, torn from the pages of the Prairie Messenger, is:

Friday Fish

When I was an undergraduate, I joined the university mediaeval drama society. At a Friday night cast party, my hostess offered me a meaty canapé.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Oh,” said my hostess. “Are you a vegetarian?”
I hesitated. Catholicism was not the favourite religion of university dramatic societies, and at least one campus newspaper was loud in its contempt of my Catholic college. I wasn’t sure how to word my explanation, so I seized on hers.
“Only on Fridays,” I said.
My hostess laughed.
“We just play at being mediaeval,” she said. “You’re the real thing.”
Yes and no. The disciplines of fasting and abstinence from meat are so ancient and so widespread that they cannot strictly be called mediaeval or uniquely Catholic. Every year Canadian newspapers report sympathetically on the Ramadan daylight fast of Islam, the Yom Kippur fast of the Jews and the strict Lenten fast of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Meanwhile, society in general used to be more circumspect in its eating habits, abstaining from snacking because it didn’t want to spoil its appetite.
Nevertheless, Roman Catholics derive no little amount of communal identity from penitential dietary practises. Historian Eamonn Duffy, no conservative, mourns in his Faith of our Fathers the “effective abolition” of such disciplines in 1966, calling it:

“… a radical discontinuity within Catholic tradition, a decisive break with the past. The ritual observance of dietary rules—fasting and abstinence from meat in Lent, and abstinence from meat and meat products every Friday, as well as the Eucharistic fast from midnight before the reception of Communion—were as much defining marks of Catholicism before the Council, as abstention from pork is a defining characteristic of Judaism. The Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and education barriers, and which united ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Catholics in a single eloquent observance … Friday abstinence has been replaced by a genteel and totally individualistic injunction to do some penitential act on a Friday—an injunction, incidentally, which most Catholics know nothing about. What had been a corporate mark of identity has been marginalized into an individualistic option.

This is, perhaps, overly pessimistic. Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution on Penance (1966) doesn’t discourage fasting and abstinence as much as it encourages Christians to observe penitential prayer and alms-giving with the same zeal. It asks local bishops to determine the appropriate laws of fasting and abstinence for their people. Meanwhile, the Code of Canon Law of 1983 states that “abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal 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” (1251). It was about 1983 when my mother, the Episcopal Conference at our house, gave up on the “individualistic option” and brought back Friday fish.
Oh ye saints! Those orange baked fish triangles of doom! The idea behind abstaining from meat is that meat is a delicacy that human beings crave; nobody could crave the frozen fish fillets that we had, with oven fries and peas, Friday after Friday for our sins, until at last someone rebelled and tastier, less penitential, fishy fare appeared. Meanwhile, it had been banged into my head, and the heads of friends with similar mothers, that Friday, like Sunday, was a special day that we shared as Catholics. It still gives us, in a very physical way, a sense of being Church together.

 But identity, of course, is besides the point. The point is to do penance and to grow closer to God through growing less attached to worldly pleasures. Christians are bound by divine law to do penance, which we do in reparation for our own sins and for the sins of others. It is fitting to do this by sacrificing food because by doing so we remember that, as much as we need food, we need God even more. Meanwhile, fasting has traditionally been associated with overcoming temptations towards other sins and with spiritual combat in general. Our Lord himself fasted for forty days before his temptation (Matthew 4:1-2) and advised his followers to pray and fast before attempting to exorcise demons (Matthew 17:17-20).

In Canada, the minimum requirements are abstinence from all food and drink save water and medicine for an hour before Communion, abstinence from meat or performance of another “good action” on most Fridays, and abstinence from meat and fasting (which means eating no more than one meal and two collations) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are encouraged, of course, to do more than the minimum. Our Eastern Orthodox brethren must find our minimum hilarious.


  1. On the other hand Catherine and Eddie were sweet nuts who probably did the church more harm than good when they were in Harlem. I'll take the fat priest over an eccentric lay person any day.

    1. As a member of Madonna House, I find this comment elliptical, baffling, and really quite insulting. What on earth do you mean by it? Who can tell?

    2. I'm sorry, Father Lemieux. After a week, new comments very rarely get noticed.

  2. Oh heavens. What can you mean? What happened in Harlem?

    Meanwhile, the unhealthily fat priest is a danger to his health, a scandal to his congregation and a bad role model for single men. He has no wife around to beg him to take it easy on the mashed potatoes/beer, or to make appointments for him at the doctor's office, or to invite him to go for a hike with her and the dog, so I think the bishops ought to do something. (If I were a bishop, I would be very paternal about the health of my priests.) Of course, many of the bishops are also unhealthily fat. As priests are men, nobody usually thinks about their fatness unless they scold us for our First World greed.

  3. I keep thinking about an obese--and desperately sad--priest I once knew who shoveled in food as if it killed the pain. Poor man!

  4. I didn't know about this requirement until well into adulthood! Fridays are meat- free in our house, except at the beginning of my pregnancy when I'm just trying to keep anything down (and am officially exempt). Usually they are fish-free too, as fish is an expensive treat here in the middle of the continent.

    Our diocese actually requires health and fitness class for the seminarians. I'm not sure when this began, but its great.

    1. That's great! That is really forward-thinking, and I hope they continue the program for priests. Oh, I am really happy you told me that.

  5. Oh, I feel like such a bad Catholic. It's hard to get into a habit when no one around you has to give up meat. I usually don't have an extravagant meal on Fridays, but not eating a turkey sandwich at lunch can be hard to remember.

    1. Remembering is most of the penance for me!

  6. It was disastrous to nix the requirement for Friday abstinence just at the end of the Green Revolution, when meat had finally become cheap and plentiful for humanity. Western Christians in developed countries have grown up without any kind of self-denial, and without developing the ability to delay gratification at all!

    Your post inspired me to return to meatless Fridays, which often means fish-less, for like the reader above, I do not feel that it is appropriate to "fast" by purchasing 17.99 USD /lb salmon or 21.99 USD/lb halibut. I found that this means less meat in general. To guarantee a meatless Friday lunch, I have to pack leftovers from a meatless Thursday dinner. Then, meatless Friday dinners turn into meatless Saturday lunches.

    I was amused to see ecologically conscious types adopt "Meatless Mondays," in order to reduce one's ecological footprint. It is indeed better for the planet to eat less meat, but why not draw on Christian tradition rather than making up a whole new thing? Our ecologically conscious pope should bring back meatless Fridays.

  7. I think it is because the ecologically conscious don't want to be mistaken for Catholics. Or they have never heard of meatless Fridays, and they just like the alliteration. It would be lovely if our ecologically conscious pope brought back meatless Fridays.

    Hmm. I do not know how much a pound of Scottish salmon would cost, as we only eat about four-five ounces (100-130 g) each per meal. I can get two nice fillets for £3 at Aldi. At any rate, plain old salmon is not an exotic luxury in Edinburgh. Oooh, and I refuse to buy factory chickens, so a chicken is an occasional Sunday roast luxury, or the primary ingredient in medical soup

    One thing about living in the UK: I think a lot more about animal welfare. At least, I think a lot more about the lives of chickens.


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