Could you please explain Fridays as a day of Penance? What should we be doing?
The question of penitential practice appears in the Gospels in a form of a conflict between the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees on one side and the Lord’s disciples on the other. While His disciples should not fast while the Lord is with them, our Lord does note that “the days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt. 9:15, Mk. 2:18-20; Lk. 5:33-35). In another place, the Lord corrects the means by which the disciples will fast rather than removing fasting from their religious practice (Mt. 6:16-18). Hence, this brief aside suggests that Our Lord intended penance and mortification to be part of our life in Him.
On the positive side, our desire for mortification comes from a profound love for the Lord Jesus Christ. Through our mortifications we are made more like Him who suffered for us. On the negative side, we recognize that not everything we do is in conformity with the will of God. We desire to make amends for the wrongs we have committed and to free ourselves from the slavery of sin. We long to put to death in ourselves those things which draw us back to sin. We achieve this by denying ourselves those things which either contribute to the sin or leave us too attached to the material creation that surrounds us. While we, as Catholics, would affirm that creation is good, we must remind ourselves that this life is fading away and that we do not live for this world alone.
Penance, then, is part and parcel of being a Christian. It is not an extra thing done or special action reserved for the particularly pious. As the Code of Canon Law directs, “All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance” (canon 1249). Furthermore, our penance occurs not only privately but corporately since we belong to one Body, the Body of Christ. The previously quoted canon goes on to say, “However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed.” It follows then that to be a faithful Catholic, there is a communion of Faith, of Worship in the Sacraments, and of Life in the forms of Morality and Penance.
Fridays naturally draw our minds to penance because it is the day of Our Lord’s Passion. The Code of Canon Law enshrines this ancient practice when it states “The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent” (canon 1250). The expectation is stated clearly. Catholics are to practice some form of penance on all Fridays and on all the days of Lent. As Sundays are like a “mini-Easter,” one could be excused from penance on those days (cf. Canon 1251).
In a general sense, penance comes in many forms: prayer, works of piety, acts of self-denial, being more faithful to one’s obligations, and of course, fasting and abstinence. The obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays was not lifted in the new Code. Rather, it modified the obligation so that if a Bishops’ Conference wanted to substitute some other food or practice they could (cf. Canon 1251 and 1253). The obligation to abstain from meat binds all Catholics from the age of fourteen, the obligation to fast from the age of eighteen until the age of sixty. After that, it is up to the individual person to participate but it is not specifically obligatory. Our own Bishops’ Conference strongly recommends us to this practice of abstinence from meat on Friday as well as encouraging us to other forms of penance as well.
I would say then that the most basic Friday penance should be abstinence from meat and then add something that applies to your particular spiritual need. So if you have been meaning to beef up your spiritual reading, fast from television on Fridays and use the time for spiritual reading. In the end, these Friday observances are really for our benefit. Isn’t it funny that many people will climb over broken glass to get the latest fad diet book so that they can have a trim and lean body, but they won’t take the same effort to grow strong in the Lord?