The bishops of Britain and Wales have reinstated year-round meatless Fridays starting in September to provide the faithful a “clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity.” Some commentators have made much of this announcement coming on the same day that the Vatican issued new instructions to bishops about increasing access to the Latin mass as just more examples of how the Catholic Church is reversing Vatican II. It’s easy to fall prey to that line of thinking (and it may be true!), but even so, abstaining from meat as a spiritual practice merits re-examination in the present day.
Pope Paul VI issued Painitemini in 1966, which relaxed the previous fasting and abstinence requirements for Catholics and created the Lenten standards that we follow today. Fifty-five years later, this document retains surprising relevance. It reflects extensively on the centrality of penitence and says nothing about Catholic identity as such. In fact, it frowns upon “any form of penance which is purely external.” Penitential acts like fasting and abstinence are to be closely linked to prayer and works of charity for the overall purpose of conversion, a process it notes “must be implemented not only interiorly and individually, but also externally and socially” as called for in Vatican II documents.
The most important statements in the whole 3,300-word document come about halfway through: “To recall and urge all the faithful to the observance of the divine precept of penitence, the Apostolic See intends to reorganize penitential discipline with practices more suited to our times.”
What practices might be more suited to our times? Actually, weekly abstinence from meat resonates anew in a 21st century nation where one-third of the people are obese and factory farming of meat is ethically problematic and environmentally destructive. Rather than recreating “the good old days” of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, an ecologically-minded abstinence from meat could provide the spiritual buttressing we need, as individuals and communities, to face grave issues. Given that the oceans are seriously overfished and that waste from fish farming pollutes waterways, the Friday night fish fry must give way to simpler gatherings for soup and bread or beans and rice, which are healthier for our bodies as well as the earth and also encourage solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the globe. Acts of charity could be incorporated with this renewed practice of weekly abstinence from meat, such as working in urban gardens that provide produce for residents of inner city food deserts or other projects that preserve and restore natural resources and/or promote sustainability and community. Prayer suggestions to accompany these actions are provided below.
Right after the above statement, Painitemini goes on to say: “It is up to the bishops—gathered in their episcopal conferences—to establish the norms which, in their pastoral solicitude and prudence, and with the direct knowledge they have of local conditions, they consider the most opportune and efficacious.” Clearly penitential practices need not be limited to abstinence and fasting as was the focus in the past. Perhaps the vision of Vatican II is yet to be realized. The old practices were not simply discarded; we are invited to deeper understanding and more conscious engagement.
Prayer Suggestions (from http://conservation.catholic.org/prayers.htm)
Prayers of Petition
O Lord, grant us the grace to respect and care for Your creation. Lord, hear our prayer.
O Lord, bless all of your creatures as a sign of Your wondrous love. Lord, hear our prayer.
O Lord, help us to end the suffering of the poor and bring healing to all of Your creation. Lord, hear our prayer.
O Lord, help us to use our technological inventiveness to undo the damage we have done to Your creation and to sustain Your gift of nature. Lord, hear our prayer.
Prayer to the Holy Spirit — Spirit of wisdom and understanding, enlighten our minds to perceive the mysteries of the universe in relation to eternity. Spirit of right judgment and courage, guide us and make us firm in our baptismal decision to follow Jesus’ way of love. Spirit of knowledge and reverence, help us to see the lasting value of justice and mercy in our everyday dealings with one another. May we respect life as we work to solve problems of family and nation, economy and ecology. Spirit of God, spark our faith, hope and love into new action each day. Fill our lives with wonder and awe in your presence which penetrates all creation. Amen.
Prayer for the Earth — For the good earth which God has given us, and for the wisdom and the will to conserve it, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy. (Book of Common Prayer, 1979)
For Stewardship of Creation — O merciful Creator, thy hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature: Make us, we beseech thee, ever thankful for thy loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 1979)