External Markers of Our Faith

It caused somewhat of a stir . . .

A few months back, you might have heard, the bishops of England reintroduced the discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays.

Every Catholic mid-fifties and older can recall how abstinence from meat on all Fridays was a constant of our lives.  In 1967, Pope Paul VI relaxed this discipline, decreeing it no longer obligatory, but voluntary, while highly encouraged, on Fridays (except during Lent, when it remained binding).

This modification–the pros and cons still being debated–almost became the symbol of “change” in the post-Vatican II Church.

Whether one agrees with that decision or not, all must admit that penance and mortification–essentials of Christian discipleship, according to Jesus Himself–have sadly diminished as a trait of Catholic life.  Such was hardly the intent of Pope Paul VI, as is clear from his 1967 teaching, but, it is a somber fact.

That’s one of the reasons the bishops of Great Britain have reintroduced the discipline, calling their brothers and sisters, faithful to the Gospel, back to external acts of penance, so necessary to fight the reign of sin so evident in our personal lives, in the world, and even within the Church.

Another reason that usually surfaces in any discussion of this issue is the value of what are called external markers enhancing our religious identity.

Scholars of religion–all religions, not just Catholic–tell us that an essential of a vibrant, sustained, attractive, meaningful life of faith in a given creed is external markers.

The essence of faith, of course, is the interior, the inside life of the soul.  Jesus, for instance, always reminds us that it’s what’s inside that counts.

However, genuine interior religion then gives rise to external traits, especially acts of charity and virtue.

Among these exterior characteristics are these markers that the scholars talk about.

For some religions, it might be dress; others are noted for feastdays, seasons, calendars, music, ritual, customs, special devotions, and binding moral obligations.

Islam, for example, is renowned for Ramadan, the holy season now upon them; dress; required prayer three times daily; and obligatory pilgrimage.

Orthodox Jews are obvious, for instance, for their skull caps, for the seriousness of the Sabbath, and for feastdays.

What about us Catholics?  For God’s sake, I trust we are recognized for our faith, worship, charity, and lives of virtue.

But, what are the external markers that make us stand out?

Lord knows, there used to be tons of them:  Friday abstinence from meat was one of them, but we recall so many others:  seriousness about Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; fasting on the Ember Days; saints names for children; confession at least annually; loyal membership in the local parish; fasting for three hours before Holy Communion, just to name a few.

But, almost all of these external markers are now gone.  Some applaud this; some mourn it.  I guess some were helpful, while others were not.  Besides the black smudge on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, is there any way we Catholics “stand out” as distinctive?

Debate it you may.  But, the scholars tell us that, without such identifiable characteristics, any religion risks becoming listless, bland, and unattractive.  Even the sociologist Father Andrew Greeley, hardly some nostalgic conservative, concluded that the dropping of Friday abstinence was a loss to Catholic identity.

And that’s another reason many welcomed the initiative of the bishops of England as a step in the right direction:  restoring a sense of belonging, an exterior sign of membership, to a Church at times adrift.

Is it fair and timely to ask if we “threw out the baby with the bathwater” when we got rid of so many distinctive, identifying marks of Catholic life five decades ago?

I’m not saying we should re-introduce any or all of these markers.  The toothpaste is probably out of the tube.  I’m just suggesting that this is a conversation well-worth having.

Perhaps the pivotal question is:  what makes us different as a Catholic?

A balance is good:  if all the emphasis is on these external markers, the danger is hypocrisy and scrupulous observance of man-made laws.

But, if all the emphasis is on the interior, with no exterior sign of identity, the risk is a loss of a sense of belonging and communal solidarity.

We sure need both.

So, I ask again:  what makes us different as Catholics?  Are the bishops of England on to something?


106 Responses to “External Markers of Our Faith”

  1. DOnald L. Morgan says:

    From your Lips to the USCCB’s ears. Your Excellency, the loss of obiedience has severly damaged our Faith. Obiedience to the laws of the Church pointed to obiedience to God. Relaxing these precepts made obiedience to the other tenants of our Faith mere suggestions. I offer the state of Catholicism in the US as an example. Please return to us the spirit of obiedience that we may more fully understand and live the Faith to which we have been entrusted. Pax Christi

  2. Susan says:

    As another convert, I only recently discovered that the practice of Friday penance was never lifted. In response, my family has taken on the practice of eating no meat on Fridays, and while it is only a small sacrifice, it certainly does act as an external marker of our Catholic faith. I only wish we could let people know that it is a universal Catholic practice and not just something we do because we want to. Please bring it back to the U.S. Church!!

  3. Jason says:

    Excellent article, Your Grace. I’m a post Vatican II person so I never knew the practice of abstention from meat ever Friday as penance. However, I adopted the policy myself about a year ago. I do wish the Church in the USA would follow the lead of the Church in the UK and institute, or revive, meatless Fridays.

    As the President of the USCCB, would you kindly bring it up with your brother bishops?

    Many thanks and God bless you.

    Kenner, Louisiana

  4. Olivia says:

    I have never known that meatless Fridays were still encouraged just not an obligation in the 60s.

    I am a lifelong Catholic and for my entire life not only are the externals of the faith not encouraged but I don’t find really the internals taken very seriously by many either. But, when I began to realize the existence of an interior faith life and how examining conscience, confession, penance and trying to acquire virtues in substitute for unhealthy/harmful/sinful habits, with the conversion I experienced I was able to discover a great joy and peace from the faith that I had never known before.

    Abstaining from meat and others that may be taken as external or visible signs, to me, are not one or the other, external versus interior but they interact with one another and inform one another in very real ways.

    We kind of had a reset button on these practices for some decades and so now that people do not do these things automatically by habit or by fear or conformity, it would be an interesting experience for people to reflect on the reason why meatless Fridays was first established, why the Church did not impose it as an obligation but hoped for people to practice it as a good practice voluntarily in the 60s, how it happened that it did not turn out as hoped, and what people feel in good conscience they could do to mark out days and weeks, Fridays to Sundays in light of our faith. Though the meatless aspect changed as no longer an outright obligation it is surprising to learn that the practice of recognizing Fridays in some way and performing penance on this day was is still recommended by our Church to be the better path for us spiritually.

  5. Martial Artist says:

    Amen, your Excellency. Amen! You are an inspiration to all faithful Catholics.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Toepfer (parishioner, Archdiocese of Seattle)

  6. James Ignatius McAuley says:

    Your Grace,

    The return to meatless Fridays as a marker of our Catholic identity would be a lovely idea. It would not be as hard as some think, as in the Erie, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester Dioceses there are plenty of “Friday Fishfrys” available.

    More importantly, would be the return of the Holy Days of Obligation in the Ordinary form of the Roman Rite — transferring Holy days to the nearest Sunday or just dropping them if they are too close to a Sunday does not increase the faith — it is a spiritual marketing disaster!

    Furthermore, we have heard incessantly since Vatican II that we laity must actively participate in the liturgy. How can the American Bishops look folks squarely in the eye and say they are promoting the laity’s active participation in the liturgy, when these same Bishops take away the opportunity for active participation by downgrading (let’s call it as it is, and not nuance it) the importance of the Holy Days of obligation, such as the Assumption. Let the Bishops and their Liturgical Committee put their money where their mouth is on active participation and restore the Holydays of Obligation!

    No need to dialogue more your Grace — our spiritual house is burning and now is the time for the holy water of action, not for jawing away!

  7. Todd Drain says:

    Your Excellency,

    I thought that abstaining from meats on Fridays was still in effect, unless you offered something equivalent in reparation or abstinence? I guess that I was wrong on that. My family hasn’t eaten meat on Friday’s for… well… ever. If I have to eat meat due to circumstances than I offer a novena or something as an recompense. If I don’t, I mention it in my next Confession.

    I think it is a wonderful idea, if preached as to WHY we do it so that we are oriented to prayer and sacrifice on the day our Lord died for us.

    The Church works when the shepherds lead. It does not, when they do not. You must upbraid and edify, and CORRECT, your priests. All priests in your jurisdiction are an extension of YOUR hand. You are the diocese. I worry shepherds do not realize this. You are the diocese. All Sacraments flow through you. If priests understand why they MUST reinstitute this practice, and it is made abundantly clear in these things you desire are not REQUESTS, and that there will be penalties (sad to say you need them, but true) for non-compliance, then it will be a successful step for the Archdiocese of New York.

    I end with wise words from St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his epistle to the Symrneans (AD 107):

    “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

    Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness [of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil. Let all things, then, abound to you through grace, for you are worthy. You have refreshed me in all things, and Jesus Christ [shall refresh] you. You have loved me when absent as well as when present. May God recompense you, for whose sake, while you endure all things, you shall attain unto Him.”

  8. ji says:

    Dear Excellency,
    I would venture to say that many,many Catholics would endorse this. The average Catholic in the pew is crying out for a return to those traditions that made us identifiable as Catholics. PLEASE BE A STRONG LEADER ! May God bless you and may the Blessed Virgin Mary lead you in this endeavor.

  9. Stephen Matthew says:

    Your Excellency,

    I think we should strive to reclaim these indentifying markers of out Catholic identity, and I have a proposal for how to begin:

    Nationwide, all bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and Catholic institutions/facilities (schools, etc.) should begin observing meatless Fridays throughout the year, while encouraging the laity to reclaim the practice.

    It is very hard to develop the habit of Friday penance as a solitary individual Catholic when there is no community support for this, and it is even harder to adopt a penatential practice with some exterior component such as the traditional abstinence from flesh meats without some support or at least cooperation.

    I say bring back the meatless Fridays as the norm, but start within the “institutional” part of the church and then expand it to everyone (and if genuinely needed, perhaps some alternative for special cases could be provided).

    (Thanks to Fr. Z’s WDTPRS blog for pointing out this fine blog post by the good Archbishop.)

  10. Louise says:

    I think they are on to something if we are trying to be Pharisees instead of disciples of Jesus. What were Jesus’ external signs of faith? The blind saw, the lame leaped, the sick were cured, the hungry fed. Catholicism isn’t a club or a team by which we identify ourselves doing superficial actions for show while our neighbors starve, suffer, lack healthcare, go homeless, have their electricity or heat turned off, etc…. “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

    I cannot help but recall Jesus’ words:

    The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. (Luke 11:39)

    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean. (MT 23:25-26)

  11. Jesse says:

    In my family we (usually) observe meatless Fridays. But for those of us younger than Vatican II, there is sometimes a sense of having come to the party as the lights are going out. The sense of Catholic identity has faded. Meatless Fridays, observed across the community, would help. We welcomed the news of England, we would relish it here. Please bring this up at the USCCB, Excellency!

  12. David says:

    Dear Bishop,

    I will make a deal with you… I will stop eating meet on Fridays if you agree to enforce Canon 915 and excommunicate pro-abortion “Catholic” politicians.

    What is worse? Me eating meat or Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, et al., participating in sacrilegious reception of the Body and Blood of Christ?


  13. Marc says:

    My wife has been practicing abstinence from meat on Fridays for a few years now, but I have resisted. I need sausage on my Friday night pizza! This post has changed that. We absolutely need these external markers. And to keep those markers consistent with our heritage is very important in constantly evolving modern times, unlike a ‘cell-phone ban’ or some other thoughtful but eventually transient notion. Mortuum Mundo, Vivum in Christo!

  14. Joe says:

    Please bring back the externals. We Catholics claim many things that we no longer practice. (meatless Fridays, daily rosary, confession, etc..) However, most Catholics are lost when asked to pry the rosary or how to give a proper confessn. Bringing back the visuals will help Catholics put their faith at the forefront of their daily lives again.

  15. Lyda says:

    Yes! Please restore our Catholic identity by bringing back meatless Fridays. And while you’re at it, bring back our Holy Days, ad orientem and communion rails, too.

    I agree with many of the other comments–less dialogue, more action.

  16. Thickmick says:

    Less talk, more action. You head the US Bishops conference, so do it. Less time taking pictures with Derick Jeter….more time trying to save your flock.

  17. David says:

    I currently do not abstain from meat on Fridays. I think it is a great idea to return the practice. I actually thought about doing this on my own and teaching it to my children. I am writing from the Cincinnati Diocese, so if you could talk to Arch Bishop Schnurr about reviving this practice in our Diocese also, I’d appreciate it. :-)

    As it is, it’s hard to talk my 13 year old daughter into it when she knows it isn’t required. I’d like her to know the identity of Catholicism I knew growing up in a Boston neighborhood to a hard-nosed Irish family. That is what brought me back after ~22 years of agnosticism for my first communion and confirmation. Identity isn’t just important, it’s crucial. Honestly, what are the arguments against the practice? I haven’t seen many of those that don’t amount to ‘I love steak!’ (coming from my daughter) :-)

  18. Sue in soCal says:

    I think we should return to some of these external markers of who we are. Meatless Fridays, Holy Days of Obligation – with the Mass actually on the Holy Day! – are two good starters. Thank you for writing this column and starting the conversation, Archbishop Dolan. Oh, and Fr. Z says, “Hi!”

  19. Giovanni A. Cattaneo says:

    Your excellency, here is a short but rather full list that would make an immense difference at the parish level

    1. Ad Orientem (the liturgical east)
    2. Latin
    3. Gregorian chant, polyphony

    In short your Grace please re introduce Catholic tradition and in turn you will see our Catholic identity flourish once more.

  20. theophilus says:

    Your Excellency,
    For all those reasons which you, and many of the above commentators, have mentioned in favor of the proposition, I strongly support the re-imposition of year-round Friday abstinence (even though I hate fish!).
    Canon law is not my strong suit, but if you have the authority to unilaterally impose this salutary discipline in your own archdiocese, please do so immediately; if its re-imposition requires the consensus of the U. S. bishops, please urge it upon them at the first opportunity.
    Friday abstinence may be small fish in light of graver, more pressing, problems that beset the church, but every little bit helps.

  21. Catholic says:

    Your Excellency!

    Just reintroduce this practice! We never lost it in Lithuania, our Bishops’ Conference confirmed its obligatoriness in 2006 and I am deeply convinced it makes much good to our spiritual life. And You can check out what Your faithful think about it – http://wdtprs.com/blog/2011/08/wdtprs-poll-should-the-us-bishops-have-catholics-return-to-meatless-fridays-for-the-whole-year/ (Fr. Z.’s poll launched after reading Your post). I know the readers out there are probably more conservative and Pope-loving than the average, but still, only the orthodox men are the future of the earthly Church.

  22. Keith says:

    I applaud your post and agree that Catholics need to return to outward disciplines as well as inward reflection. The two are related. I like to say discipline precedes desire. That is, we have to do the outward things faithfully before we begin to feel the interior change.

    Thank you again for this post. I hope many more will follow your lead.

  23. Dennis says:

    Dear Excellency, it would be a wonderful grace if our bishops would lead us back to some of the disciplines and traditions of the not too distant past. Friday abstinence would be a great start. What about returning to fulfilling our Sunday obligation on Sunday and dressing appropriately for it. Frequent confession was always important, remember the lines on Saturday afternoons. The daily family rosary at one time was very common and wouldn’t we all love to see the parish schools return. We may only have to begin to move in that direction and Our Lord without whom we do nothing will pick it up from there. God bless you.

  24. Janis says:

    I teach RCIA in the Bible Belt; we desperately need to maintain our \Cathlocity\. In the South, the Church \competes\ with protestants who have cultural appeal to youth. As Catholics, we need to appeal to our youth with our lives, and that includes the EXTERNAL markers of INTERNAL holiness. Yes, bring back meatless Fridays, and catechize the faithful as to why we offer penance to our risen Lord!

  25. Brian says:

    Archbishop makes some great points. And it’s true that external measures without internal conversion are pointless and maybe even counter-productive.

    That being said, it seems like we have little to lose at this point by doing some experimenting.

    One possible option would be to increase the length of fast before receiving communion. Maybe two or three hours instead of just one.

  26. Jim says:

    Your Excellency,

    You should know if you have read the directive of the time, that Friday penance was never abrogated; rather the Vatican left it up to the individual bishop’s conferences. Unfortunately, in the USA and mostly everywhere else it was just left up to the individual to decide what their penance was. So nowhere did the Church ever say that we do not have an obligation for Friday penance – it is part of the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church. The fatal mistake was letting people ‘do their own thing.’ Can you imagine telling a sports team or a school class that they have requirements to study or practice but then give them no guidance or markers, just do it on your own? What a failure.

    Also, Your Excellency, as our shepherd you must be mindful that collective acts bring grace upon the whole body and not just the individual. We are a Mystical Body. While the Church has always promoted individual acts of piety, it has REQUIRED collective acts such as mandatory mass attendance and Friday penance to ensure the faithful meet some minimum level for their own good as well as to bring collective grace upon the whole Mystical Body.

    Also, you mention the markers we used to have, like mandatory mass attendance and confession at least once per year. These requirements have never been lifted, just ignored. It is shameful that our shepherds have not forcefully reminded people that they ignore these requirements at the peril of their eternal salvation (but then salvation is now guaranteed – how old school of me).

    If you look at the traditional orders and groups of lay faithful, you will see vibrancy, a bundle of youngsters and many vocations. These are places where the ‘markers’ you speak of are embraced and followed. There is an ascendancy there and a decline in the wishy washy, cafeteria catholic parishes over which you and your brother bishops preside.

    I beseech you and your brother shepherds to get serious with the faithful and let them know what Our Lord demands of them. It is for the good of the Church and their souls.

    Thank you.

  27. Your Excellency, I hope for and look forward to the day when abstinence from meat on all Fridays of the year is again expected of all U.S. Catholics. Generally, there is the value of penance, and of a deeper remembering and identification with the Passion of Christ on every Friday. More particularly, this will reconnect us with a constant practice of the Church throughout the centuries; it is simple, clear, and concrete; it touches us in the important activity of eating; it is visible to others and contrary to the self-indulgent spirit of the age. This change will be wonderful when it comes. Soon, please!

  28. Dara says:

    Sacrifices and sin offerings I desire not but A HEART OF MERCY…sadly lacking in the pre Vatican II Church with all its pomp and circumstances.

  29. KathiBee says:

    Your Excellency,

    Thank you for this pensive blog entry. I am a post V2 Catholic and our family stopped eating meat on Fridays several years ago when my husband & I stumbled upon the fact that Friday penances (which were never part of our growing up lives as cradle Catholics) were never abolished. We actually have several other friends who engage in this practice as well.

    Yes! We need our Catholic identity. We need Bishops to start us on that path. This seems like a fairly benign & painless place to start. When we support a football team, we wear their apparel, or wave a towel together, or wave wheat or do a gator chop, etc. – all to outwardly show we are cheering on the same side. How much more important to be able to see that person who shares the same faith as us & give us that encouragement to keep running the race.

    Tip of the Biretta to Fr. Z for posting a link to this article, and a tip to you as well, Archbishop.

  30. Jessica says:

    Your Excellency,

    Thank you for this article. I have felt “lost” recently in exactly this way. Priests wear collars, sisters wear habits, Muslim women wear head scarves. As Fr. John Riccardo once said, you can tell immediately what is important to them. I do not have an obvious identifying marker. My “cross” necklace has lost its meaning..

    I would like to hear your thoughts on how and what we can do to start implementing these things. My faith has resulted in some of the traditional markers, but I’m not sure how “external” or “visible” they really are. For someone who does none of them, where should we start? Perhaps there is something the ancient Christians used to do that would suit our current sensibilities?

    Thank you again.

  31. Mars says:

    >>> I’m not saying we should re-introduce any or all of these markers. <<<

    Oh, yeah? Then why the article?

    I say bring back meatless Fridays! Let's start putting the paste back into the tube.

    And bring back the veils, too. When in Russia, I notice that all the Orthodox women wear veils into church.

    And any women in audience with the Pope must wear a veil. How much more then, when we approach Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, His REAL Presence?

    I wait for the liberal moans …

  32. Barb says:

    Your Excellency,

    Saw this over at Father Z’s blog (and he wants us, his readers, to give you a ‘Hi!’). Good piece of writing!

    I’m of an age to remember meatless Fridays (I’ll be 57 in a few days’ time). My family would eat fried fish-I didn’t like the smell for whatever reason and ate cereal instead.

    ANYWAY….(rolling my eyes)….when your predecessor the late Cardinal John O’Connor was Archbishop, my mother remembered him saying something about abstaining from meat on Friday in reparation for abortion. So she and I started doing that-not meat on that day.

    This is a start-now the Bishops have to go into overtime to reassert our Catholic identity. We ask this of all of you as our shepherds! There are over 50 years of weak catechesis to make up! Stand up and wield those crosiers! Be like Thomas Becket and John Fisher!

    Barb in Upstate NY

  33. Fr. Vincent J. Rigdon says:

    Your Excellency:
    I am a priest, of your generation. When I was in college, and the requirement of meatless Fridays had recently been dropped, a religious Jewish friend of mine told me sadly that we were making a big mistake. “It’s not so much that the Jews kept the Sabbath,” he said, “but the Sabbath kept the Jews. You Catholics are getting rid of something very important.” In the forty years since our conversation, I have often agreed with his ecumenical observation. Don’t even get me started on Latin for Catholics being like Hebrew for the Jews…

  34. dom says:

    OK fine and agreed. But I don’t get the part about the toothpaste being out of the tube. Just bring the meatless fridays back! Is this really that complicated??

  35. Anne says:

    As a parent, I can not and will never say “too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube.” As a wife, I will never say about my marriage, “too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube.” While I might FEEL this way, that is the very moment when extraordinary courage is called for and extraordinary grace is needed. I look back over 25 years of family life and tremble to think what would have happened if I had followed those words. Please do not underestimate how terribly lost so many sitting in the pews for an hour each week feel. Or how a generation, practicing Catholicism lite, because of poor catechesis, are lost to the fullness of the faith. Many are leaving for churches where there is clear direction and challenge. The fact of the Real Presence is frequently unknown and undervalued. Perhaps not at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but in many Catholic churches irreverence is rampant…no genuflecting; deafening talking, laughing and socializing in the church before and after the Mass, beach wear with major cleavage, three minute sermons, and out the door we go.
    Would I tell my child we can’t celebrate your major day…your birthday, because we just celebrated Grandma’s birthday the day before? Please bring back Holy Day obligation even if it falls on a Saturday or Monday. Seriously, we can get there. What if everyone who attended on August 15 was given a 50 dollar gift certificate to the store of their choice. The church parking lot would be full. Why? The secular culture has won.

  36. Maria says:

    Your Excellency:

    I don’t know whether you have had a chance to read this post at AMERICA MAGAZINE

    More External Markers for Catholics?
    Posted at: Thursday, August 18, 2011 10:28:31 AM
    Author: Sidney Callahan

    I provided multiple comments in defense of your fine article. All of them were deleted. Some referenced Fatima, some Fr. Hardon and others the Blessed Mother herself. All of my comments contained orthodox teachings of the Church. I also provided a link to your article as a truncated view was being presented by Callahan. Deleted.


  37. Maria says:

    The Practice of Penance
    and the Observance of the Friday Fast
    by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.

    One aspect of the practice of penance has to do with the proper observance of Fridays. I am afraid there is some misunderstanding on the subject. In 1966 when Pope Paul VI issued his Constitution on Penance, he did not change the essential meaning of Friday as an obligatory, yes, obligatory day of penance to be observed in union with the passion of the Savior. Fridays were, and they remain, mandatory days of penance. A Catholic has no option as to whether he will do penance on every Friday. This is a duty specified by the Church. The only option is the kind of penance one performs.

    At the risk of being technical about this important matter, let me explain. Each member of the Church should be united with his fellow Christians in offering reparation to God for sins. We can choose to do penance on any day and in any way that appeals to us. A work of penance is always pleasing to God. To do penance is a divine law. But besides the divine law, there is an ecclesiastical precept, a law of the Church to practice penance on certain days and in the manner the Church requires. What was formerly given as the second precept of the Church could now be modified to read, “to fast and abstain, or do some act of penance approved by the Church, on the day commanded.” The question may be asked, “In place of abstinence on Friday other forms of penance are mentioned by the Church. Are these of obligation or merely a matter of counsel?” The answer to this question, is that a person who avails himself of the choice of eating meat on Friday is not merely advised to undertake some other form of penance; he is bound to do so.

    Friday penance, therefore, is not a matter of mere counsel, but of actual precept. In plain language, a Catholic commits sin if he or she allows a Friday to pass without an act of penance. In Pope Paul’s Constitution on the subject entitled Poenitemini (which is the imperative of the verb “Repent”), after the Holy Father enumerates the days of penance, he states, “The substantial observance of these days binds gravely.” It may be recalled that there were some questions among commentators after the constitution was issued as to how this phrase should be interpreted. Did it refer to the days taken singly, so that on each Friday there was a grave obligation to penance with due allowance for slightness of matter, or did substantial observance mean that the days were to be taken collectively and only then was the obligation binding under mortal sin? The question has been authentically answered by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, that it does not necessarily refer to each day, but that a person would sin seriously who omitted a part of the Friday penitential observance prescribed as a whole, if the part omitted were notable with regard to either quantity or quality and there was no excusing cause.

    In the light of this teaching of the Church, when would a person be guilty of serious sin by not observing Fridays as days of penance? A practical answer is when he or she had failed to observe a notable number of Fridays, without proportionally grave reason. Many Catholics continue to satisfy their precept of Friday penance by regular abstinence from meat. This is highly commendable. But if they prefer to eat meat on Friday, they are bound in conscience to practice some other, corresponding penance instead. The proper observance of Fridays is critically important for the Church. This is where pastors must instruct the people, and confessors should enlighten their penitents to help them form a correct conscience.

    All of this needed to be said, I believe, in order to clarify what I fear is being neglected, out of ignorance rather than bad will.

  38. Maria says:

    The Practice of Penance
    and the Observance of the Friday Fast
    by Father John A. Hardon, S.J

    Part II

    Our approach to the practice of penance, however, should not be mainly to avoid transgression. We should look upon penance not as something unpleasant, but as an opportunity to expiate our sins and thus be more closely united with our Lord in His sufferings for the salvation of mankind. It is my belief and fond hope that a recovery of Friday as a weekly day of penance, legislated as such by the Church, will help all of us in the post-conciliar age to rediscover what must be the foundation of our spiritual life. What is this foundation? **That we realize we are all sinners. Our sanctity begins when we admit that we have sinned, because then, Jesus makes sense to us. We realize He has something to save us from**.

    We are sinners, indeed, and therefore we need to make reparation for our sins. How? We need to love God more, by more frequent and fervent prayer and reception of the sacraments. We need to love others more, by being more generous with our time and more willing to sacrifice comfort, convenience, effort, and money to assist those who are in need. We need to suffer more, by doing without things that are not necessary, by giving up luxuries and delicacies, by willingly bearing with discomforts and even some positive pain, in order to make up for our past self-indulgence, and the sins we have committed by seeking our pleasure and ease.

    A final word. We shall grow in virtue and the grace of God, in the degree that we mortify our self will. Every surrender of what I prefer, to what God prefers, is an act of penance, pure and pleasing to the Lord. And this kind of penance is available to everyone who loves much, because he or she has been forgiven much. I suspect that on this point all of us qualify.

    And this is why, righ your Excellency? I think this was the point you were trying to make…

  39. Tom Cwiok says:

    Your Grace,
    Abstaining from meat on Fridays is a good idea and such that would help the American society fight the obesity problem. Say Mondays and Fridays without meat would be even a better idea…
    I do not think, however, that “external markers” of faith do signify “strong internal faith”. The best example is the case of the Catholic church in Poland. Ever since the a Pole became Pope, Polish Catholics became very conscious about “external markers” of their faith: They put crosses on the walls of public institutions such as schools, began very laud and evangelical about their religion and the Pope. As a result Poland has the largest cathedral build in Europe in 20th century and the world tallest statue of Christ a completed just a few months ago. But in the meantime the unity of the Church deteriorated and now the Catholic church in Poland is divided on the upper levels of its hierarchy (bishops supporting different political options) and on the lower end (with some two million Catholics following a media-savvy priest rather than their bishops). New breakaway priests spring up taking away with their followers from the Church. Everybody says they are true Catholics… Add to it growing numbers of people who abandon the Church in disgust and make no bones about it…
    It appears to me that you need the “externals markers” of faith when the “internal strength” of your faith stops radiating through you…
    One more remark: I remember that before 1989 in the communists Poland, catering and dining services that served public institutions (such as schools ect) by default did not serve meat on Fridays. It was just universally understood that a Friday is not a meat day. And Poland was full time a communist state!

  40. Robert Kokron says:

    I think it would be marvelous if some of the old “disciplines” of the faith were reinstated. Bravo! People who still practice their faith will welcome the disciplines and penance never hurt anyone.

  41. John G. says:

    Your Excellency,

    The 82 comments to your blog – External Markers of Our Faith – contain one theme. We, the Catholic Laity, are looking to our Bishops for more leadership than we have received in the past number of years for “internals” within the Church. Those posting their comments are in fact what the advertising profession calls a “focus group”. They are telling you what is bothering them about the current Catholic Church leadership.

    You were selected to be the Archbishop of New York and then elected as President of the USCCB. The gift to you was no happenstance. You were placed in the best position to lead God’s church in the United States out of its current malaise. Please act at the September Meeting of the USCCB and start the process of returning our Church to its former vigor. We need your inspiring and courageous leadership.

    And I will take this opportunity to again request that you act to reinstate the “Prayers After Mass” to beseech God to bless our Nation. God will not act on His own. He needs to hear our congregational prayers asking for His blessings.


  42. Mike Gallagher says:

    I am a life long (and conservative) Catholic and someone who takes my Catholic faith very seriously. I’m very disappointed that the chairman of the USCCB would put this type of focus on such externals at a time when the Church is in such crisis. I very much remember those “good old days” that so many respondents to this blog seem to be nostalgic over and wish to return to. They were by no means “good”. For one thing, the Catholic identity that is referred to just served to separate us from other Christians. In fact back then many Catholics didn’t even recognize that they were Christians. They were more focused on following Church rules and regs than in leading a truly Christian life. In addition, while some of these things on the surface sound like they would be more challenging, in fact it’s just the opposite. Following a set of rules and regulations is nothing but a poor and simplistic substitute compared to the challenge of living the Gospel message and following Jesus in every aspect of life. It takes real commitment and real love to follow Jesus. Anyone can blindly a set of rules. To many people, following those regulations became the be all and end all of their Christian walk. Finally what we see coming out of our Catholic leadership these days totally misses the point that what we need is passion for Christ and love for neighbor to get the Church back on track not a return the closed windows of pre-Vatican II. The Church itself teaches that a Ecumenical Council is one of the highest forms of Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and all we hear these days is this type of silliness which is in reality just a move to ignore God’s revelation that came to us through Vatican II, close the windows that John XXIII refered to, and go back to the times before Vat II. “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings (ie silly rules).” Hosea 6:6

  43. Cecilia says:

    Yes! My family observes the abstinence from meat on Fridays, except when my kids have lunch at their Catholic schools. I’m planning to bring it up–as tactfully as I can–with the schools. I’m not in your diocese, but maybe encouraging the Catholic schools to help would be a step in the right direction.

  44. MaryLou Stengel says:

    Not being a meat eater, there would be no penance but I may refrain from desserts. Most important on Fridays, however, I usually attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, remembering the great sufferings Our Lord experienced for us. I enjoy thinking about St. Anthony holding the Infant Jesus and I also think that Jesus holds me in his arms for a few minutes after receiving the Eucharist. Praise Jesus, His Father, His Holy Mother and the Spirit. We need them all.

  45. Notgiven says:

    Amen! Yes, Eminence, let’s do this! Meatless Fridays are incredibly easy to do…and healthy, too.

    But, we have to catechize, as well. Because actually, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (in #1438) “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and EACH FRIDAY [emphasis mine] in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).

    How many people even know this? We ARE supposed to be doing something to commemorate the death of the Lord EVERY Friday. So, why not recoup/rediscover part of our Catholic heritage and tradition [with a small “t’] and be a sign of Catholic identity and conversion to the world? Going without meat for one day a week isn’t a huge sacrifice for most…except to pride and individualism. We could take what we would have used for meat and donate that to the poor, the homeless, worthy organizations such as St. Vincent de Paul, the Missionaries of Charity, etc, etc. It will help the world know we are Christians by our love, so that even “The heathens themselves [say]: ‘What marvels the Lord worked for them!” Psalm 126:2b. “So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead…Show me a faith without works, and I will show you the faith that underlies my works” James 2:17, 18. Amen! Let it be so!

  46. Notgiven says:

    Ah, I should have said Excellency!! Perhaps, it was in joyful anticipation that someday the title (and responsibilities that come with it) will be yours. Mea culpa! I have been a supporter for some time.

  47. tom says:

    Your Excellency,

    As a post-Vatican II cradle-Catholic, I can assure you that the flock would grow by leaps and bounds if a return to more traditional Catholic values/practices were reinstituted.

    Furthemore, I agree with the comments posted by Giovanni Cattaneo regarding: (1) Ad Orientem (the liturgical east), (2) Latin, and (3) Gregorian chant/polyphony in the mass.

    The younger generation hungers for the old disciplines.

  48. Qualis_Rex says:

    Your Excellency, this is an incredibly well-thought and poignant post. God bless you and all our GOOD priests. As someone born long after Vatican II, I can tell you I mourn the loss of my visible Catholic heritage. I fast regularly on Fridays and before communion, wear the ashes on my head to work, have rosary hanging in my car, wear a cross or medal around my neck and ALWAYS try to remember that when I am addressing someone in any circumstance (i.e. if they have just cut me off on the road) that however I act they will always know and remember that it came from “some Catholic guy”. And I’m hoping it will be favorable for the most part.

    You have asked all the right questions, so I’m wondering what you, as a shepherd in Church and in a position of authority are doing to address them in your diocese and in the US as a whole. Once again, thank you for this.

  49. Jo says:

    Your Excellency,

    I join the others in applauding you! When I learned several years ago that the Friday abstinence, if not practiced, was supposed to be replaced by another form of penance, I immediately began meatless Fridays again. Now two out of my four adult children are joining me by abstaining and I am continuing to pray that the other two (and my grandchildren) get on board soon!

    Thank you, dear Archbishop! It is so encouraging to see brave bishops….please keep it up! You are in my prayers.

  50. Edward says:

    His Excellency noted that the following:

    1. “…bishops of England reintroduced the discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays.

    2. “…all must admit that penance and mortification–essentials of Christian discipleship, according to Jesus Himself–have sadly diminished as a trait of Catholic life.”

    3. “That’s one of the reasons the bishops of Great Britain have reintroduced the discipline, calling their brothers and sisters, faithful to the Gospel, back to external acts of penance, so necessary to fight the reign of sin so evident in our personal lives, in the world, and even within the Church.”

    4. “Scholars of religion–all religions, not just Catholic–tell us that an essential of a vibrant, sustained, attractive, meaningful life of faith in a given creed is external markers.”

    5. “What about us Catholics? But, what are the external markers that make us stand out? Lord knows, there used to be tons of them: Friday abstinence from meat was one of them, but we recall so many others: seriousness about Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; fasting on the Ember Days; saints names for children; confession at least annually; loyal membership in the local parish; fasting for three hours before Holy Communion, just to name a few.”

    6. “But, almost all of these external markers are now gone. Some applaud this; some mourn it. I guess some were helpful, while others were not.”

    7. “Debate it you may. But, the scholars tell us that, without such identifiable characteristics, any religion risks becoming listless, bland, and unattractive. Even the sociologist Father Andrew Greeley, hardly some nostalgic conservative, concluded that the dropping of Friday abstinence was a loss to Catholic identity.”

    8. “I’m not saying we should re-introduce any or all of these markers. The toothpaste is probably out of the tube.”

    Your Excellency, that is where you lost me.

    You pointed out the tremendous benefit and necessity in regard to religious external markers.

    But incredibly, you then declared that you are not “saying we should re-introduce any or all of these markers. The toothpaste is probably out of the tube.”

    Please take a stand, You Excellency. Please don’t inform us that…

    1. External markers are important to a religion.
    2. That we’ve discarded to our detriment Catholic external markers.
    3. But you’re not saying that we should return to our Catholic markers.
    4. That the toothpaste is out of the tube…in other words, forget about Catholic external markers as it’s too late to return to that which we need desperately to revive Holy Mother Church.