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Now we’re restoring the Friday fast, can we have our Holy Days of Obligation back, too?

This year, Twelfth Night will be on day eight: give us a break

By on Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Pope Benedict celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi on a Thursday, while in England and Wales it has been moved to Sunday (Photo: CNS)

Pope Benedict celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi on a Thursday, while in England and Wales it has been moved to Sunday (Photo: CNS)

The general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, it seems, has been given the job of thinking up ways of revitalising Lent; also of looking into ways of restoring the custom of Friday fasts. Not only that: according to the Herald’s report: “The move comes in a bid to restore public manifestations of Catholicism following the Pope’s visit which was widely hailed as a success.”
Well, cor love a duck. Who’d ’a thought it? The most unlikely people are being drawn in to this incipient wave of Benedict-inspired restorationism. Bishop Kieran Conry, in an Advent message to the fortunate people of Arundel and Brighton, has put his episcopal weight behind what would surely this time last year have seemed to him to be an unseemly nostalgia for an era before all these old popular devotions were swept away by “the spirit of Vatican II”. Anyway, Bishop Kieran, inspired by the Pope, is now all for bringing back fish on a Friday:

“This was one of the most obvious signs of Catholic identity, apart from going to Mass. It determined the diet in places like prison and hospital, and was something that Catholics were instinctively conscious of: we knew that we couldn’t have meat like everybody else that day, and it was a source of a sort of pride – it marked us out as different.
“Today we are perhaps less willing to be marked out, in case we are marked out as not just different, but ‘odd’. And that is what we had been told, and began to believe.
“But the Pope’s visit has said to us that this is not ‘odd’, but that it’s actually important. A few years ago I suggested that we might take up another of those old Catholic practices, grace before meals, if we had lost the habit of it. It’s not difficult, doesn’t take much time, but it’s a gentle reminder.”

You might argue that nothing stops us from eating fish on a Friday as it is. Actually, in our household we do: but the point is we do it now as a sort of private devotion rather than as an expression of the fact that we are part of the life of the Church. We used to do it, in fact, even when we were Anglicans, as a sign of solidarity with the Catholic tradition: that, too was just a personal devotion. It would be wonderful if our bishops now actually said, in terms, that the old tradition is now restored by their authority, and formally pronounced that we ought not to eat meat on a Friday without good reason.

It would be good, too, as we’re on about penitential practice, if Bishop Kieran now publicly changed his mind about regular confession being a waste of time; but that’s maybe going a little too fast for now and we should give thanks that he has said what he has in fact said.
But while we’re about it, if we are bringing back customs that “marked us out as different”, can we now have our Holy Days of Obligation back? I vividly remember, before I was a Catholic, how impressed I was on some such day, perhaps Corpus Christi, walking past Westminster Cathedral and seeing hundreds of people spilling out of church after a Mass that had obviously been attended by many at some considerable inconvenience to themselves. As Pastor Juventus memorably put it just after the craven shift of all holy days to the nearest Sunday had been effected, “as a reminder that the obligation to worship is imposed on us by God himself and is not subject to our convenience, it is my opinion that this universally unpopular change should be reversed forthwith”.

I remember, some years ago, arguing on the radio about precisely this topic with the then (I think) Mgr Conry when he was still in charge of what I always thought of as the Catholic disinformation Office. He had his way in the end: but perhaps, in his newfound enthusiasm for Pope Benedict and for the old ways now being revived in the afterglow of the papal visit, might he now change his mind about this one, too?  
I would like to keep the Epiphany on Twelfth Night, January 6, and not, as the English calendar ludicrously lays down this liturgical year, January 2 (I’m not kidding). At St Peter’s, Rome, incidentally, it will be kept on the proper day. What’s good enough for the pope ought to be good enough for the English and Welsh Church. How about it, Archbishop Vincent?

  • paulpriest

    My eldest was born on the 6th January – it resonated deep within him at the earliest age ; he was born on a special day.
    When conference decided to shove the Epiphany et al to the nearest Sunday it was like the Church kicking him in the teeth; and when he asked for the reason why and received the honest reply that they're bone idle ; I think it will lead to some priest in the none-too-distant future heading for a verbal evisceration should they attempt to make any justifications for it.

  • PhilipH

    Transferring the feast of the Epiphany to Sunday the 2nd of January means that Christmas ends very early this year – I feel a bit shortchanged.

  • ann couper-johnston

    Unless I am exhibiting the dire Maths that had me taking O Level twice, the nearest Sunday to 6th January is surely 9th January?

    I do fish on Fridays, too. I am a Catholic on my own in a Protestant family, therefore isolated, so I like to attach myself to my predecessors in the Faith: they all did “fish on Friday” and that creates a link. The only problem I sometimes have is that something needs finishing quickly (being on my own most packs of meat are larger than I'd like). In that case I stretch a point and eat it for supper (i e after 6 pm).

    You can always tell Muslims in public by the headscarves they wear: we, too, should not hide away, but be quietly proud of our Faith.

  • Anthony

    Yes. When I was a little lad in Liverpool in the 60s – and long before I had achieved what little wisdom life has enabled me to attain – my mum, along with many others, continued to wear her mantilla at Mass for some years. Then the so-called 'spirit of Vatican II' descended, unbidden, upon their heads.

    I still remember how beautiful the women appeared to me, and how dignified they seemed in this visible expression of their sense of humility before God (not Man, I hasten to add!), not to mention the useful 'spin-off' of an emerging aesthetic sense concomitant with the pride I felt in being part of such a tradition.

    Fortunately, the parental example of devotion it set for me (in spite of the many travesties of the subsequently misguided 'interpretation' of Vatican II by our bishops) has never died. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the several generations of children whose own parents were never encouraged (because they were, in effect, denied the opportunity through the abnegation of pastoral responsibility here in England and Wales) to practise the traditional devotions that not only deepen understanding but help to sustain faith in times of personal crisis or spiritual vulnerability, and (as we see again in our time) secular prejudice and antagonism.

    We should hardly be surprised (dismayed, perhaps, but not surprised) by the ludicrous transfer of faith affirming Holy Days of Obligation to the nearest Sunday (or, as Ann Couper-Johnston points out in the case of the Epiphany, not the nearest!) and the de facto disappearance of fasting. The almost total loss of the reverential awareness of the sacrificial meaning of the Mass (the absence of genuflection/bowing in the presence of the Holy Sacrament, bowing of the head at the name of Jesus, humbly tapping the breast when we acknowledge our sins, etc., etc.), has been compounded by the quite simply sacrilegious disruptions often caused by so-called 'children's liturgy' (not to mention the distractions caused by 'child-centred' parents and their children playing with toys!): don't misunderstand me, of course children deserve preparation to appreciate the liturgy at a level commensurate with their understanding, but what is the point of Catholic primary schools if they (like some Catholic parents) are clearly failing in so many parishes to properly catechize their catholic pupils? Is it any wonder, in our age of instant gratification, that they give up coming to Mass when it no longer seems 'fun'!

    We are frequently reminded by Muslim commentators, in the media in general – but it sometimes seems in the BBC in particular – of their daily prayer and fasting practices, as though these are things alien to the general Christian mentality. Regrettably, they are, and to many Catholics, too. How quickly, in the name of modernity, we were allowed to lose the centuries old practices of morning and night prayer, the Angelus, Benediction, etc., with their foundations in the Holy Church's praying of the hours from Matins to Compline, reaching back through the millennia to the earliest followers of Christ. Shame on us. Why should we expect anyone else to respect our traditions – the visible expressions of our faith – if we are too ignorant, or idle, to respect them ourselves?

    And while we idle in our complacency, Islam, which took what it needed from the Judaism and Christianity which precede it by centuries, continues to win adherents in the spiritual vacuum left by the post- 'Enlightenment' erosion of faith in secular Europe (which eventually gave rise to Marxist materialism, communism, fascism, Nazism – the paradoxes are no accident): converts who are, at the very least, in part attracted to it by the very external manifestations of devout faith which they can plainly see with their own eyes.

    In an age characterized by pseudo-intellectual conversational buzz words like 'random', 'relative', 'chaos' and 'choice', in which structure gave way to post-modern anti-form, and the late-twentieth century love-affair with consumerist lifestyles took over from love of what gives value to life, it seems we were led to give in to the re-branding of our own faith – the faith of the Holy Roman Church which shaped the distinctive culture of Europe – presumably to make it more 'accessible', 'inclusive', 'ecumenically correct' (feel free to add your own advertising and marketing shibboleth) as though Catholic, i.e., universal, was no longer enough.

    But just when it may have seemed to the adversaries of the faith that, to their delight, we had become our own worst enemies and were blithely doing all the dismantling of our own institutions for them, The Holy Spirit, acting through the person of Benedict 16th and the new generation of priests and bishops who have gradually become more attentive to the strong and gentle guidance of his voice, has reminded us of who and what we are. So, come on, folks! There's no time (literally, figuratively and metaphysically) like the present in which to act and make our own voices heard (which reminds me: there is a treasury of beautiful liturgical music and Mass settings waiting to be re-discovered by Catholic parishes up and down the land – you lucky people!). Let's buck up and finally buck the modernist trend which, at long last, has had its day.

    (And while we're bucking up, we can book up, too: if you are looking for a few places to start, may I suggest 'General Instruction of the Roman Missal' and 'Celebrating the Mass', both published by Catholic Truth Society. 'The How-To Book of Catholic Devotions' and 'The How-To Book of the Mass' published by Our Sunday Visitor in the USA, but also available through Catholic bookshops/online retailers here, are very useful for family catechesis and/or personal instruction/re-fresher courses. It's never too late to (re-)learn!)

  • John Kearney

    It is interesting that the reason for abstaining from meat on a Friday was a guidance by the Church that we must do Penance. The custom was taken away with the idea that people could devise their own way of Penance and did not need such guidance. The result was that few catholics have any notion that Friday is still a day of Penance. The fish on a Friday shows the wisdom of the Church.

  • Jhammer

    I've always had no meat on Friday's, though I've not always associated this with 'fasting'. Growing up my family always had fish on Friday's – but we looked forward to it. My CofE relatives also always had fish on Fridays. I think the principle of fasting on Friday's suggests something more than not eating meat. I am apoplectic that Epiphany is not celebrated on Jan 6th. In my book this is a very important day: we know that the 'wise men' came to the manifestation of God as Christ somewhat after the shepherds and donkeys – but because they had a longer journey to make to God. In honour the different way in which God chose to reveal Himself to the wise men, and in deference to those who arrive at their destination via much longer, and circuitous routes, the Epiphany is a supremely important day and should be restored to its rightful place.

  • Rjashton

    Maybe fasting in the fullest sense, not just fish on Friday, is near the top, but the list is of what has been takn from us is so so long. Facing east, priest and people together. Communion kneeling, on the tongue. The restoration of our feast days. Preaching our Catholic faith. The restoration of the dignity of our liturgy – away with the guitars, drums and tambourines. A few simple moves and we could be back on the road to restoring the Catholic Church in England.

  • paul

    'the restoration of the dignity of our liturgy' I understand that some people enjoy a more traditional mass, but at our Church we alternate between a music group singing traditional hymns and organ music.

    As this is an issue of personal taste, not doctrine or papal teaching I think it is only fair to allow congregations to decide for themselves what they prefer. I think usually the best solution is to have a youth mass with a band etc. and most of the rest of masses to have choral or organ music, but I wouldn't want to impose what I feel, so I would suggest Parishes simply vote internally for what they want.

  • Rich

    Alternatively we all vote with our feet and don’t bother going – get a better sense of prayer at home rather than putting up with “Our God Reigns” and ill-prepared homilies. When will our dear sisters and brothers in Christ learn??