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Our Friday Penance

Our Friday Penance

You will no doubt have heard by now of the resolution from our Bishops’ Conference 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.’

Currently, the Conference uses the discretion given them by Can. §1253 to ‘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.’

This has given us flexibility, certainly, in the way we fulfil our Friday Penance, but it has also enabled it to become a hidden thing; a very, very private thing.  When I consider my own practices, they are all either unseen, or not ostensibly penitential… and I’m very comfortable with that.  But from 16th September – the anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival on these shores – we, as Catholics in England and Wales, will be bound to fulfil our Friday Penance by abstaining from meat* as ‘clear and distinctive mark’ of our Catholic identity.  Our Friday Penance is to become a public witness to our faith.

There are many ways in which we bear witness to our faith in public, but – at the moment – penance is just not one of them.  It was not always thus.   In the early and mediaeval church, at a time when even in the home, privacy was a rarity, penance was usually a public act.  Now, life affords us much more privacy and it is so easy to adhere stringently to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6 and not parade our good works before men because let’s face it, we’d hate to appear to be ‘holier than thou’.

It’s similarly easy, however, to ignore Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:

14 You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Our bishops are asking us to take our Friday Penance into the public arena not so that we may appear to be ‘holier than thou’ but because ‘they recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness.’ Our own Friday Penance, carried out in public, should then both support our brothers in faith and glorify our Father in heaven.

Between now and September, let’s take some time to pray about and reflect upon our own practice of Friday Penance, in the knowledge that we will probably be asked about it by curious friends or colleagues in the months to come.  Let’s be ready to give authentic witness to the faith we have received!



*Though of course we can undertake additional penances as well – it would be a disaster if we all abandoned our current practices!

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