Friday Penance

Statement from the Irish Bishops on Canons 1249-53

November 1983

Following the example of Christ

The new Code of Canon Law reminds us that all of Christ's faithful are obliged to do penance. the obligation arise in imitation of Christ himself and in response to his call. During his life on earth, not least at the beginning of his public ministry, our Lord undertook voluntary penance. He invited his followers to do the same. The penance he invited would be a participation in his own suffering, an expression of inner conversion and a form of reparation for sin. It would be a personal sacrifice made out of love for God and our neighbour. It follows that if we are to be true, as Christians, to the spirit of Christ, we must practice some form of penance.

Special penitential days

So that all may be united with Christ and with one another in a common practice of penance, the Church sets aside certain penitential days. On those days the faithful are to devote themselves in a special way to prayer, self-denial and works of charity. Such days are not designed to confine or isolate penance but to intensify it in the life of the Christian throughout the year

Lent: a time of fast and abstinence

Lent is the traditional season of renewal and penance in the Church. The new Code reaffirms this. It also prescribes that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are to be observed as days of fast and abstinence. Fasting means that the amount of food we eat is considerable reduced. Abstinence means that we give up a particular kind of food or drink or form of amusement.


The subjects of penitential observance

Those over eighteen are bound by the law of fasting until the beginning of their sixtieth year, while all over fourteen are bound by the law of abstinence. Priests and parents are urged to foster the spirit and practice of penance among those too young to be the subject of either law.


Friday: a special penitential day

Because Friday recall the crucifixion of our Lord, it too is set aside as a special penitential day. The Church does not prescribe, however, that fish must be eaten on Fridays. It never did. Abstinence always meant the giving up of meat rather than the eating of fish as a substitute. What the Church does require, according to the new Code, is that its members abstain from meat or some other food or that they perform some alternative work of penance laid down by the Bishop’s Conference.


The style of Friday abstinence

In accordance with the mind of the universal Church, the Irish Bishops remind their people of the obligation of Friday penance, and instruct them that it may be fulfilled in one or more of the following ways:

(i)   By abstaining from meat or some other food;

(ii)  By abstaining from alcoholic drink, smoking or some form of amusement;

(iii) By making the special effort involved in family prayer, taking part in the Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or praying the Stations of the Cross;

(iv) By fasting from all food for a longer period than usual and perhaps by giving what is saved in this way to the needy at home and abroad;

(v) By going out of our way to help somebody who is poor, sick, old or lonely.


Friday penance is a serious obligation

While the form of penance is an option and doesn’t have to take the same form every Friday, the obligation to do penance is not. There is a serious obligation to observe Friday as a penitential day. We recommend that each person should choose some form of penance for Fridays, in memory, as was Friday abstinence, of the Passion and death of our Lord.

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