When I was a kid, we did not eat meat on Fridays. Then, after Vatican II, we understood (wrongly it turns out) that we only had to do that during Lent.
According to the article linked below, the only change Vatican II made was to give national episcopal conferences the power to make the meatless Friday an option, rather than a mandatory penance.
In some countries, meatless Fridays are still mandatory. In the U.S., we can substitute a different kind of penance on Fridays, but abstaining from meat is still the penance of choice.*
I’m seriously annoyed that I did not know this. I mean … I taught RCIA for 5 years! How come NOBODY EVER TOLD US?! Sheesh.
The article linked below lists three positives to choosing abstaining from meat for one’s Friday penance.
1. Symbolism. Friday was the day of Christ’s passion and death. When we do some kind of penance on Friday, we recall His sacrifice. When we abstain from flesh foods, we specifically recall the sacrifice of His body. (This is why cold-blooded flesh foods, like fish, are okay.)
2. Simplicity. It’s easy to remember, it’s time-tested, and it’s neither too easy nor too demanding for most people. (There’s nothing stopping vegetarians from choosing something else to skip.)
3. Solidarity. Friday abstinence is like ashes on Ash Wednesday. It’s part of one’s Catholic identity. A single shared sacrifice is more powerful of us than the more generic doing-of-something-penitential on Fridays.
I’m convinced. Dearest and I are going meatless on Fridays from now on, just like when we were kids.
*It is inappropriate to do penance on a solemnity. A solemnity is a very special feast day. Most solemnities are one day long, but the two greatest solemnities in the Catholic calendar — Easter and Christmas — last for eight days.
The eighth day is called “octave day” and the days in between are said to be “within the octave.” The days within the octaves are “little” solemnities; the first and eighth days are “big” solemnities.
Any Friday that falls within the octaves of Easter or Christmas are not days of abstinence or penance.