If you investigate why Catholics eat fish on Fridays in Lent, be careful not to drown in a sea of conspiracy theories.
Many Catholics, for example, have heard at least one version of this theory: “Way back in the Middle Ages, Pope What’s His Name wanted to shore up the European fishing industry. So, he mandated that Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays, and fishermen no longer floundered economically.”
The problem with this myth is that conspiracy theorists got it backwards, according to Professor Michael P. Foley, a prolific Catholic author who teaches patristics at Baylor University in Texas.
“The most ridiculous theory is that medieval fishermen lobbied the church to create Friday abstinence when in fact it was Friday abstinence that helped create the medieval fishing industry,” Foley told the Catholic Courier in an email interview.
Fasting was common
Foley is author of the 2005 book Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Fridays: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything. Christians routinely fasted long before medieval fishermen strove to boost revenues, he noted.
“From the age of the apostles, Christians in Palestine fasted every Wednesday and Friday, and later in Rome, they fasted and abstained every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday,” he said. “Friday was an obvious time for penance, because it was the day of the crucifixion of our Lord.”
Fish symbolism resonates
There is nothing particularly special about eating fish on Fridays, Foley added, noting that Catholics worldwide consume a variety of foods other than meat on Lenten Fridays.
“The key is … to abstain from the flesh of a warm-blood animal,” he told the Courier. “There is something paradoxically appropriate about abstaining from the flesh of a warm-blood animal that ‘shed’ its blood for you on the day that the God-man shed his blood for you.”
Of course, Foley and other scholars acknowledge that fish-related symbolism has long been prevalent in Christianity, so it’s no surprise that eating fish on Fridays has a certain resonance with Catholics. Jesus called his apostles “fishers of men” and fed the multitudes with fish. Early Christians suffering persecution reputedly drew pictures of fish in the dirt or on the entrances to their homes to alert other Christians to their secret identities.
1966 Friday fast update
Until the church changed its rules in 1966, the world’s Catholics fasted from meat every Friday, not just during Lent. Even today, canons 1251-1253 state that the faithful should do some sort of penance every Friday even outside of Lent.
“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,” canon 1253 states.
Fasting unites Catholics
Fasting and abstaining from meat helps unite the church during Lent, according to Father Louis Sirianni, parochial vicar at St. Mark Parish in Greece.
“In both the times of abstinence and of fasting, (it) is a good opportunity to see us joined with Catholics all over the world, a sign of unity,” Father Sirianni said. “It also affords us the opportunity to reflect on how we use the gifts of God that nourish us and to consider those who have little or no food, which may lead us to opening our hearts to donate to various programs to aid the hungry. And all of this fasting, abstinence, prayer and almsgiving, make up the core of the Catholic Lent and lead us to restore order to what we call important.”
That point was seconded by Father Thomas Mull, pastor of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Geneva.
“Fasting and abstinence encourage gratitude on the part of people, because the absence of food or limiting our intake causes us to realize what we have and be thankful,” Father Mull said. “In some ways, it also causes us to appreciate those who cook for us, continue to sustain us and those who sacrifice for us. The church stresses the importance of fasting and abstinence because it is part of our Catholic tradition; it binds and unites the community, reminds us that it is Lent, and helps us be grateful.”
Friday fish fry dinners
Each Lent, diocesan parishes and Catholic organizations are among the groups that offer a mouthwatering way of helping the faithful observe Lenten abstinence.
At St. Mark’s, for example, Star of the Sea Knights of Columbus Council No. 11374 serves fish fries on Lenten Fridays. Grand Knight Tony Morales, a parishioner at neighboring St. Lawrence Parish, said fish fries were communal meals before the COVID pandemic but are now served on a take-out basis. Morales said he hopes to return to the community gatherings that bound together parishioners from St. Mark and St. Lawrence.
“It was just families, talking, laughing getting their meals and socializing,” he said.
The council is conscious of keeping the meals modest in size in honor of Lent. A typical meal is fresh haddock, fries, coleslaw, a roll and a cookie, Morales said.
“This is not a time to be eating all-you-can-eat fish buffets,” he added with a chuckle.
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