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Fish on Fridays is a move in the right direction

The bishops’ decision to reintroduce the Catholic custom of Friday penance is a weekly reality check

By on Monday, 16 May 2011

Fish and Chips (Photo: PA)

Fish and Chips (Photo: PA)

Why do I feel so cheered by the news that the Bishops of England and Wales have decided to re-establish the practice of ‘fish on Fridays’? Partly because this ancient practice seemingly got changed without any reference to the laity, which had a very sentimental attachment to it; partly because it is a small but significant way of showing we are ‘different’. It also re-connects me with the immemorial custom of my Catholic childhood. So it is spiritually and psychologically a move in the right direction.

The bishops rightly state that they “wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity.” So instead of just thinking of ‘fish-and-chips’ we are meant to give the gesture a deeper meaning. It was always thus – but perhaps we had come to a merely mechanical observance of Fridays in the days when it was habitual? This little Episcopal dietary hiatus has given pause for thought. Of course, in these days of plenty it is possible to feast on fish; you only have to gaze at the fish counter at Tesco’s. To ‘abstain’ does not carry the same weight as to ‘fast’ but it is a weekly reality check, nonetheless.

Who knows? The bishops might become so emboldened by this gesture that they will now want to re-establish our Holy Days of Obligation. No-one I know wanted these to change. A good friend of mine even started a campaign to reinstate them, and collected a lot of signatures to have Ascension Thursday and the Epiphany returned to their rightful liturgical days. She duly sent the signatures and a polite letter to Archbishop Nichols and duly received a polite letter back. Nothing happened.

Now, according to the report by Anna Arco, the bishops are going back to their dioceses to ‘reflect’ (I love that word and those quote marks in this context) on the merits of “returning the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany and Ascension back to their proper days in the liturgical calendar.” Another thought: when the Holy Days were moved, for the convenience of priests and people, an elderly priest remarked to me, “If lay people want these Masses they must produce more priests to celebrate them.”

Perhaps Friday could also be the day when we pray for more vocations to the priesthood?

Anna Arco has described herself as “a Catholic anorak.” If that is the case, I am a Catholic trench coat (of the Humphrey Bogart kind).

  • Anonymous

    I would be delighted if Epiphany and Ascension Day were restored to their proper days….especially as the Orthodox Church celebrates their Christmas on the Epiphany (this year was a nonsense, with Epiphany being kept by the RC Church on 2nd January!) while the Anglicans always keep Ascension Day on the Thursday….40 days on from Easter of course.

    However, I believe that the problem with keeping the major Feasts on their correct days wasn’t just to do with a lack of priests. I have it on good authority that as these Feast Days are/were Days of OBLIGATION but as so few people made the effort to attend Mass, then it followed that those who could have done so but were too lazy were technically in Mortal sin and therefore should not be receiving Communion until they’d been to Confession.
    But with the casual attitude now prevalent, this sort of thinking isn’t taken seriously by many and so if these feasts were taken to the nearest Sunday many more people would benefit and would not be in the Mortal Sin category.

    So perhaps the OBLIGATION has to be taken away to make sense of this and that people should be encouraged to attend on the correct dates. After all, Good Friday is not a Day of Obligation but many, many go to Church.

    One can, in London at least, find the Extraordinary Form of Mass on these Feast Days as this Form has a different Calendar to the Ordinary Form….but this is not advertised much, probably for obvious reasons, as the hierarchy wouldn’t want that to become too popular….I surmise.

  • DBMcGinnity

    Symbolic Catholics
    This is a genuine question and does not deprecate the positive intentions of the church. What is the logic of fish on Fridays”. As children we woke up the cooking bouquet of kippers, instead of bacon. It was wonderful, and there was no penance in enjoying this lovely breakfast. In the evening we enjoyed haddock or plaice with chips and in the summer we enjoyed a salmon salad.
    As stated, I am not being difficult, but I cannot see the logic in doing without meat, which is proving to toxic and unhealthy. Therefore instead of doing symbolic penance, why not perform an additional act of kindness, anonymously to relieve the hardship and suffering of another person.
    Nostalgia and sentiment are no good enough reasons to eat fish on Fridays. There has to be more. 

  • Anonymous

    I know what DBMcGinnity means about fish being a desirable food and therefore not much of a penance,if any. Yes, “there has to be more”.

    So wouldn’t it be a better idea to promote Friday as a day of FASTING and if one is not eating meat, neither should one be eating monkfish or something equally delicious but choosing more modest fare like an egg or some cheese and give up alcohol and/or sweets/chocolate if possible. This is what we have done as a family since the “fish on Friday” was cancelled after Vatican II.

  • Avrilwilliamson

    Why is it so important for Roman Catholics to be “different” from other Christians?

  • Anonymous

    It is not a matter of being different, it is a matter of adhering to authentically Christian values such as penance, which other Christian traditions (I am thinking of Anglicanism here) appear to neglect.

  • Anonymous

    People often mix custom and morals; you are quite right to separate them. They are not the same. 
    I like your idea, as it is more relevant when not eating meat has ceased to be a sacrifcace any more.
    As a relatively prosperous country, it is sacrifices of TIME that are much harder to make, than an alteration of diet.

  • Anonymous

    Not a bad idea either. 

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, you got that one turned around. The question is, rather: Why do the others persist in their self-imposed exile ?

  • M Rimmer

     In the 3rd to last paragraph, the last sentence, 

    Another thought: when the Holy Days were moved, for the convenience of priests and people, an elderly priest remarked to me, “If lay people want these Masses they must produce more priests to celebrate them.”

    It is my understanding that God calls people to the priesthood and it is not a ‘oh I’ll become one because there is a job going?’ situation. 

  • Adam Thomson

    I wonder what it means to be “technically in Mortal sin”? Does that mean that if you die you “technically” go to hell? Were they in mortal sin or were they not?

  • Anonymous

    Good point Adam….I suppose I meant that depending on how much those who skip Mass on days of Obligation understand about what they are doing will also depend how they are judged. Some people are genuinely ignorant about Obligation Days being on a par with Sundays while others may know but think it doesn’t matter. I think this is called “wilful ignorance” or something similar.
    Therefore this latter group would fall into the mortal sin category whilst the former group would be those “technically” in mortal sin although because of not understanding, they might have a get-out??
    As for what happens to all these upon Judgement, I obviously have no idea!

  • Anonymous

    Since leaving my parents house I no longer attend Sunday mass. Living in a foreign land, I find comfort in recalling my mothers faithful persistence, she made such a special effort to ensure my family observed Holy Days of Obligation, so now on Holy Days I usually go to lunchtime mass at my campus chaplaincy.  Ritual and calendar days are important for embedding culture, and may yet bring this wayward sheep back into the fold.

  • Anonymous

    That’s good news Dewey101 

  • guest

    What if you don’t like fish that much? And what if you are poor? Does a baked potato and tuna fish count? Fish is very expensive, does the Archbishop know that Catholics are also losing their jobs and living on £65 pw, we don’t need to be reminded of poverty, when we are struggling and are living on one meal a day because the cost of food is so high. I suggest the Archbishop should visit a supermarket something.
    I don’t much like fish even, being required to eat it weekly will not make me like it any better, I will just stick to pasta.

  • Anonymous

    Of course a baked potato and tuna fish count.  Fish fingers and fish cakes are not expensive.  Beans on crumpets is a simple meal alternative for the non-piscitarian.

  • DBMcGinnity

    Fish on Friday is a “Red Herring”

    The Catholic Church’s preoccupation with pain and penance is pathological and is masochistic. Instead of thinking and acting negatively, why does the church not recommend something positive to help someone in need or to alleviate pain instead of causing pain.

    As a child, I recall being told by a Christian Brother to put a stone in my shoe on a Friday to cause me discomfort so that I could be like Jesus. My mother said ‘No’!  Do something nice and generous for someone, instead of this tomfoolery. She taught us positive thinking and self confidence instead of self deprecation.

    What a sick minds these people have for to concentrate on pain and destruction, and to instruct children to inflict self injury. From a dietary and nutritional perspective, there is no rational reason to replace meat with fish. Inside the body, the digestive processes are identical and there is no sound reason for the church’s dogma. 

  • guest

     My issue is that most people don’t eat red meat more than once or twice a week..I barely eat it once a fortnight, the only meat I eat most of the time is chicken and that is common with many families. Most households are not feasting on prime steak on a Friday.
    I don’t see why it is penance for those with money, it is an excuse to have a really good meal or go to the chippy on a Friday night, have the Prawn Balti instead of the Lamb Madras.  In France, fish is always the dish of the day on a Friday, because of the old Catholic tradition and it is fresh, local, beautifully cooked and not an act of penance to eat it in anyway, even for people that are not big lovers of fish. There is also the issue of ethically caught fish, when stocks are depleted.
    In this country, those with less money just eat as normal and the excuse for fish and chips are treat, the suffering is in the cost for a family of four .  They miss the fact that for many people Friday is the end of the working week, at time to relax, unwind with family and friends, the penance to many has been the stress of the working week, worrying about paying the bills and kids homework. The kind of advice you got is the reason why so many in the Priesthood and Religious thought nothing of abusing children, the suffering of Jesus was the reason to inflict pain and suffering, They wonder why they have falling attendance and abuse was an accepted, secret culture.

  • Alan

    To my mind a “mortal sin” is something which is a sin at all times and for all people.  I find it difficult to see how this can apply to a Church rule, which by definition does not apply to non-Catholics, and which does not come in until 16 September. 

  • Fish with Dies Irae anyone?

    What is the spirituality of the Bishops like. If they had a deep relationship with Christ they would know that God wants, “Mercy, not sacrifice.” Not an infantile habit but a deep relationship through prayer. Perhaps the laity should reintroduce the level of offertory  donations that they gave when this fish fad was last in use. The bishops would then perhaps grow up spiritually? Anyway, my dining on fish at the nearest Michelin star restaurant while paedophile priests still operate shows that the tradition of “straining gnats while swallowing camels” is alive and well!

  • Rosie Toes Under 55

    If we really want to be penitential and stand out as Catholics in our culture and generation do something radical and give up television. Abstinence from meat is not penitence today, it is nostalgia and why should my spiritual life be governed by someone’s childhood memories. This is an irrelevancy and brings the Church into contempt. An under-55 year old.

  • Michael

    Good Friday is a public holiday, so more people can get to church whilst Ascension Day, Corpus Christi and Epiphany are not. Perhaps it would be better to keep Ascension Day on the historically correct Thursday, but I see no harm in keeping Epiphany and Corpus Christi on the Second Sundays after Christmas and Pentecost respectively, as they are in most other European countries, including Scotland and Ireland.

  • Zylphazogg

    Why fuss about a shortage of priests when it is self created? There is
    an easy answer which also fits much better with the philosopy of
    treating all people equally.
    Double the number of priests by allowing women priests?
    Add more by allowing married priests (men and women)?
    Tha Catholic church already allows Anglican male priests who are married to remain as married priests when the join the Catholic Church. They do a good job.

  • Thunder


  • Boris


  • Boris


  • Boris


  • Pauline

    Not eating meat is no hardship.  Eating fish instead is a cop out especially as I prefer fish to meat. This abstinence is meant to be ‘a clear and distinctive mark in Catholic identity’ – then that is quite pathetic. Isn’t our daily life and lifestyle meant to set us apart as Christians.  Or, is it that the Catholic Church is trying to set itself apart from other Christians – which is worse than pathetic – it’s divisive for no real reason.