DON'T EAT BACON, BUY A COW
Among English and Welsh Catholics, ancient penitential prac-tices are back. Is the Church digging in? Or is the sound pride of Catholic identity being born?

A full English breakfast. Its chief ingredients are bacon and eggs. However, it is not full if it lacks fried or grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages, beans in tomato sauce, toast with marmalade and the obligatory tea with milk. After such a breakfast you can forget hunger for half a day or longer. As of 16 September 2011, about 2.5 million residents of England and Wales ought to ask themselves every Friday a Hamlet-type question: to eat or not to eat a full English breakfast? Or, perhaps, resign themselves to having porridge? For the bishops of England and Wales decided that on this day every Catholic should not eat any meat as a sign of penance and remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross.

The English-speaking world is perfectly familiar with the concept of fish Friday. Already in the Middle Ages, the fish business in Britain was driven to a large extent by fasting practices. The fish burger at MacDonald’s as well. It was marketed for the first time by a chain manager in Connecticut in 1962, who observed that sales at his meat-only fast-food outlets dropped significantly on Fridays. So he started to put fish into bland hamburger rolls.

Meat-free for all

Of course, this text is not about the superiority of fish over meat but rather it attempts to describe what fasting has become for British Catholics in recent months. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Code of Canon Law are not very specific on the question of fasting. In harmony with the penitential character of Fridays, you may abstain from eating meat, or other types of food, do a pious act or show mercy to another. Details are to be decided by Conferences of Bishops in individual countries. In 1985, in England and Wales, bishops ruled that Friday self-denial needed not concern meat, except for canonical Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This can mean refraining from a selected type of food or entertainment. So what changed on September 16th? (nota bene: in England and Wales, and not in Scotland which has its own episcopate). What changed was that the practice of not eating meat became a rule for everybody to observe. There are exceptions, though: vegetarians are encouraged to deny themselves other types of food. Exceptions cover also children below the age of 14, adults more than 60 years old, the sick and pregnant women. The bishops announced the changes in May 2011. Comments abounded. “It’s a brilliant move, calculated to bind Catholics in England and Wales in an ancient observance many will remember as children. (…) the bishops believe Catholics are proud of their faith, and are ready to show it every week,” wrote Christina Odone, a columnist for the conservative Daily Telegraph. The leftist Guardian’s Annalisa Barbieri ironically remarked: “I know that lots of Catholics will be really happy about the re-establishment of this practice. It harks back to the past, and the past is a safe place for some Catholics, where homosexuals didn’t exist and women were quiet. The resumption has also been heralded as something that will unify Catholics; presumably wearing the guilt blazer isn’t uniform enough”.

Bishops write so people can understand

Journalists did their job well and the bishops did more than they had to. They spoke to their flocks in an easy and natural way. On the webpage of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, they had an easily downloadable FAQ file posted, providing answers to many questions. They were signed by the Secretary General of the Conference, Fr Marcus Stock. The questions which the bishops answered had been asked on the Internet forums of The Catholic Herald, Daily Telegraph or The Guardian. One of them can be summarized as follows: “With all that is happening in our society and our world, are there not more important things to be concentrating on? Why have the Bishops of England and Wales reintroduced this common act of penance now?” The bishops replied: “As shepherds of the Church (…) we are charged by Christ to read the ‘signs of the times’ and re-examine in each new age how the Church needs to respond to these issues and challenges”. Among the “signs of the times” they count the fact that many people, especially the young, abstained from meat although they were not obliged to. It is also clear that many of us forget our obligation to do penance on a Friday, while abstaining from meat “is easy to remember (…) and although it is still an act of penitence, cannot be considered to put any real or substantial additional burden on the lives of the faithful”. On the forum of The Catholic Herald there were also posts saying: “Why should the bishop tell me in detail how to do penance and maybe he will threaten me with hell for eating meat?” The bishops answer the question whether it is a sin to eat meat on a Friday. Do not worry, he who by mistake or even out of laziness devours a slice of ham on a Friday does not sin gravely. A grave sin is committed when intentions are bad, when a person eats meat out of contempt for the rule and, consequently, for those who introduced it.

The pope changed us

Why did the new penitential rules enter into force on 16 September 2011? Here we touch the source of inspiration on which the bishops drew. It was on this very day that the first anniversary of Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to Britain fell. The pope arrived then in a country outraged by sexual scandals among the Catholic clergy and in a country where many complain about the members of the clergy: they are believed to be too liberal, passive and lacking in courage. The pilgrimage, however, passed peacefully. Surprisingly enough, the media spoke of an unaffected triumph of Benedict XVI.

For Clare Ward, who works for the Bishops’ Conference in London, the papal pilgrimage was a memorable experience. “It was an indescribable, palpable experience of the Holy Spirit. It brought us joy and pride of being Catholics,” Clare says. At work, she heads the Home Mission office responsible for missions and religious teaching at home. “The papal pilgrimage changed us. It made us aware of the treasures we have in the Church, of its heritage. Without this, it would be hard to understand why the bishops stressed the value of Friday penance. And this is part of our Catholic heritage,” she adds.

When now Clare organizes sessions or lectures on Fridays as part of her work, she takes care that no meat is served. She has not heard any unfavourable comments on the decision to fast on Fridays. Instead, she heard from Catholic schools that they introduced no-meat Fridays in their cafeterias, despite the fact that children under 14 can have sausages or hamburgers on Fridays without a problem. For instance, the prestigious Independent Boarding Oratory School in Woodcote, founded by blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, on Fridays for lunch and dinner serves “pasta, risotto and fish – all with a salad,” Director Clive Dytor wrote in an e-mail. In the morning, in the dormitory, “no full English breakfast”. The Director also wrote that there had not been any critical comments, in spite of the fact that fifty per cent of the pupils are non-Catholics. “I think that the majority accepted these changes – similarly to the ban on smoking in public places – as a sound progress”.

Clare Ward remembers also one positive response from non-Catholics. The Bishops’ Conference received a letter of praise from an association of fishmongers!

Meat does not fly in Cameroon

English and Welsh Catholics live in a multi-denominational and multi-cultural country. They are ethnically heterogeneous themselves in the first place. Next to native English Catholics, some of whom have Reformation martyrs among their predecessors, there are many Irishmen. Poles make a strong group as well, which has grown in number in the last decade. At Mass, you can also meet many Filipinos and Africans. African priests come sometimes to the rescue of the parishes that do not have a parish priest.

This situation is witnessed in St. Joseph’s Parish in Tilehurst, a district of Reading (half an hour from London by train). Fr Bonaventura Ndong Che, known as Father Bon, arrived from Cameroon at the time when the new fasting rules were being introduced. He tells with satisfaction how vibrant and young the Church in Cameroon is and how many young people enter seminaries and monasteries. “Catholicism is very traditional in the English part of Cameroon. We are very serious about what the Catechism and bishops say,” he stresses. They are serious about the Friday fast as well. In Cameroon, you are obliged to abstain from meat; however, ‘flying animals’ do not count as meat there. Generally, meat is a luxury. In large cities, vegetables are a luxury because poor residents have no way to keep them, transport is expensive, and roads are poor.

Hence, in cities it would be a penance to deny oneself vegetables, if one is offered them. “We also have many Catholic boarding schools. Teachers ask their pupils to deny themselves one dish. When a year is over, they add up how much they have saved and pay this amount to the needy,” Fr Bon answers. On the sense of fasting, he speaks in the style of African preachers: in a simple and emphatic way. “The world lives on consumption today. We are supposed to swim against the tide. Fasting helps us grow in sainthood. In past centuries it was limited only to the Easter triduum. As one cannot sanctify oneself in three days a year, the fast was expanded to include forty days before Easter. But this is not enough, either, so every Friday is the time of fasting and penance,” explains the priest. His English parish accepted the change without a problem. “This was probably so, because these are the Catholics who observe traditions. But I can imagine more liberal parishes where critical opinions could be voiced,” he adds. Father Bon does his own cooking and says he is not good at it. On a Friday, he would eat a sandwich and cook some rice.

Anglicans stay silent on fasting

The Rev. David Archer used to have a hunger lunch when he studied theology. Today he heads St. Mary’s Anglican Parish in Purley-on-Thames, a village close to Reading. He is married; his three children attend primary school. The hunger lunch was very modest and simple, it would consist of only bread and a beverage. Students would have it in order to identify with the poor. This is practically the only penitential practice David Archer encountered in the Church of England. He considers himself a member of the Evangelical, charismatic branch of Anglicanism, next to liberal and Anglo-Catholic, the most traditional, branches. “The practice of fasting is very limited in Anglicanism. I have almost never heard a sermon about it. I was brought up in the Church of England but I have spent some time in a certain independent Christian church. There, fasting was talked about and practised. I know a man who denied himself food for 40 days, like Christ,” he remembers.

He is fascinated with the Catholic Church’s return to traditional penitential practices. He learned about this when I asked him for an interview. He asks about the significance of Friday for Catholics and ponders about biblical sources of fasting. “The Old Testament gives many examples of fasting. Jesus Himself fasted and expected His disciples to do the same. However, from a theological point of view, I cannot explain the sense of fasting. The only explanation I can offer is that fasting gives spiritual strength and that fasting helps ‘tune in to’ God better,” David Archer says.

To my question about the penitential or expiatory sense of fasting, he replies: “This sounds Catholic to me. Anglo-Catholics would like it. However, from the evangelical perspective, I feel uncomfortable to have to agree with such thinking. Christ’s death on the cross suffices. We do not need to flog ourselves or think badly about ourselves. Our sins are forgiven. We have a new life,” he confesses.

David Archer agrees that denying oneself food or pleasure to help others has a lot of sense. “Stress should not fall on abstinence and self-denial but on doing something good – charitable works and good deeds,” he observes.

Fast in an envelope

Englishmen are steeped in the spirit of charity. Accounts of charity events receive lots of coverage in the local press. Permanent fixtures of towns are charity shops with second-hand clothes, books, or toys. Sandra Brewester from Woolhampton, Portsmouth Diocese, fifteen years ago got an idea how to combine the English spirit of charity with the Catholic penitential Friday spirit. She founded a Friday Self-Denial Group. The rule is simple: anybody who wishes to join the group goes to a coordinator and takes an envelope. On a Friday, he or she denies him- or herself chips, a bottle of wine or a cake. The money he or she thus saves is put into the envelope and offered during collection during Sunday Mass. “It’s not just another charity drive. By giving up something pleasant, we can identify with those who suffer more than we do,” Sandra observes. Every week, in the four churches of the parish, about 80 envelopes are collected. Last year almost ?4,000 were raised. The funds collected by the group go most often to small charities. In the beginning the group helped the wards of the parishioner who is a doctor working in Malawi. At another occasion, parishioners bought a cow for an African family. This year, they are supporting infant feeding posts in Khartoum, Sudan. Sandra says that this is about concrete things; this appeals better to human sensitivity than dropping money down the well of large charitable organizations.

Sandra is very happy with the new rules of Friday penance and fasting, although little has changed in her life and the group’s principles of operation. Except for the fact that the parish priest, Dermot Tredget, a Benedictine, gave her publicity. “When he spoke during Sunday Mass about the bishops’ decision on fasting, he suggested that a very good reply would be to join the Friday Self-Denial Group,” Sandra rejoices.

***

The revisiting of ancient fasting traditions is not the only sign of revival in the Church in Britain. Another huge project is under way – a new translation of the Missal, closer to the Latin original. This however deserves a separate text. Opinions are also being voiced that the obligatory feasts of the Epiphany and the Ascension should be reinstated (now they are moved to the closest Sunday). Are English and Welsh Catholics making their lives harder for themselves or are they desperately trying to prove their spiritual superiority over others? Or, perhaps, they are taking off the straitjacket of political correctness and passiveness hidden under the mask of tolerance, and right now are taking a deep breath of God’s free children?


Jolanta Brozda-Wisniewska - a journalist, columnist, music critic. A graduate of the Academy of Music in Poznań. In 2000-2008 worked in the culture section of the Gazeta Wyborcza daily in Poznań. She published also in W Drodze, Tygodnik Powszechny, Ruch Muzyczny, and Canor. She is married, has two sons and lives in England. (wszystkie teksty tego autora)

     


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