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

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.

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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).

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