In 1966 American bishops took advantage of Pope Paul VI's permission to modify the discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays. The theory was that since abstinence from meat was not a sacrifice for some Catholics, it would be better if each Catholic chose for themselves a sacrifice that was truly penitential for them personally. The bishops encouraged temperance, self-denial and good works for those who chose to do a penance other than Friday abstinence from meat. Bishop William Higi of Lafayette, Indiana offers some thoughts on the topic:
"With the intention of reinvigorating the observance of Friday as a penitential day, the bishops urged Catholics to be mindful of their sins on Fridays as well as the sins of mankind which we are called to help expiate; asked Catholics to make each Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ in preparation for Sunday; and abolished the mandatory nature of Friday abstinence outside of Lent allowing Catholics instead to choose their own acts of voluntary self-denial and personal penance. Abstinence, they said, should still take priority among Friday acts of penance."
"In a time of post-Vatican II euphoria, it apparently was thought that adult Catholics would seek out the high ground. It didn't work. A basic rule of thumb was overlooked: people gravitate to the least demanding level of the ladder. The rationale behind the change in practice and the other truly beautiful thoughts in the call to maintain a spirit of penance were overlooked or soon ignored. Today, the fact the Fridays of the year should be days of penance is judged an antiquated idea without relevance by many. This failure to embrace penance conflicts with the view of the Church gleaned from the Scriptures and summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: 'The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart...the human heart is converted by looking upon Him whom our sins have pierced' (1432)."
"In 1983, the American bishops repeated the call to observe Friday as a day of penance. They wrote: 'As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance and almsgiving for peace.''
POINTS TO PONDER: Have most U.S. Catholics complied with the American bishops' call for penitential Fridays; or are they so content personally, and at the state of the nation and the world, that they feel no need to make amends to an offended God by acts of penance? Are there no sins to make reparation for? Are American Catholics confident that their souls are so pure that they will skip right into heaven after death and bypass purgatory? Are they so charitable that their sins are covered by that charity?
The saints were penitential souls, and not just on Fridays. If some or most of American Catholics are not penitential, is it because they are wiser and holier than the saints? Or, could it be that they have forgotten, or never heard, the bishops' call for Friday penance? It couldn't hurt for the bishops and priests to repeat clear instructions to all the Catholic faithful in order to clear up any confusion or misunderstandings about the Church requirement for Friday penance.
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Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, Eternal High Priest, Mother of all priests, and our Mother, help us respond generously to the Holy Spirit's request, through the voice of His Church, to offer up to God Eucharistic adoration for priests. Amen.