As we will soon be reminded during Holy Week, Christ died on the cross for our sins on Friday. Out of honor and respect for His death and suffering for our sins, the Church has set aside Fridays as a special day to honor and remember Christ’s suffering. “Christian peoples, members of a Church that is at once holy, penitent, and always in process of renewal, have from the beginning observed seasons and days of penance. They have done so by community penitential observances as well as by personal acts of self-denial; they have imitated the example of the spotless Son of God Himself, concerning Whom the Sacred Scriptures tell us that He went into the desert to fast and to pray for forty days (Mk 1:13). Thus Christ gave the example to which Paul appealed in teaching us how we, too, must come to the mature measures of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13)” (http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-resources/lent/us-bishops-pastoral-statement-on-penance-and-abstinence.cfm). While we seem to focus more fully on this sacrifice during the season of Lent, we are called to make sacrifices along with Christ every Friday as we remember His sacrifice. Our suffering and sacrifice has traditionally been in the form of abstaining from meat on all Fridays. Yes, you heard me correctly there, all Fridays, not just Fridays during Lent.
As Canon Law tells us, “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent (Can. 1250), and abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determines by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays (Can. 1251)”. Canon Law goes on to say that “the conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast” (Can. 1253).
In 1966 the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement that did just that. Citing changes in economic, dietary, and social circumstances, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops felt that abstaining from meat on Fridays “may no longer be the most effective form of penance”. They did not, however, state that we are no longer to do penance on Fridays throughout the year. The bishops recognized that meat is no longer a luxury, and concluded that abstaining from “things we enjoy most” on Fridays, as another form of abstinence, may be more penitential. In other words, the US Bishops recognized that abstaining from meat may not be a hard enough penance for Americans and they wanted to push us to dig deeper in our observance of penance on Fridays during the year.
The Conference of Catholic Bishops went on to provide us with the following guidance in prayerfully discerning a proper “voluntary self-denial and personal penance” on Fridays throughout the year. “Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year…For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”
In closing, I will default to Pope Benedict XVI to describe to us the true desire we are seeking in abstaining and offering penance on Fridays throughout the year. "Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God."---Pope Benedict XVI