Growing up in an Italian Catholic family, we never ate meat on a Friday. (My mother doesn’t eat meat on a Wednesday either, which is seriously hardcore Catholic.) If, by some oversight, we did stuff some salami into our panino and scoff it before realising what day it was, it would be regarded as very bad form. Sometimes the old ladies present (in Italy there are always old ladies present) would bite the back of their hands, as if expecting an actual clap of thunder overhead.
Abstaining from meat was seen as an act of penance; it took place on Fridays in remembrance of the day Jesus died on the cross. This practice of meat-free Fridays was abolished in England and Wales in 1984 because, it was thought, people could pick their own act of self-denial. Except, largely, they didn’t. Many thought it was a shame the custom was halted. “People knew,” one priest said, “that Catholics didn’t eat meat on a Friday and respected that.” Another described it as “a tragedy” that the practice was dropped, citing that it “marked Catholics out”. No worries: these days we’ve got child-abuse scandals to do that.
But the good news is that Friday penance is making a comeback. Pack up those sausage rolls, because from 16 September – the first anniversary of the pope’s visit to the UK – the bishops of England and Wales have decided that Catholics are once again to abstain from eating meat on Fridays.
While the full resolution says that if you don’t eat meat you can choose some other food to give up, many have mistakenly interpreted this to mean you have no alternative but fish. (It was the Catholic abstention that led to the tradition of fish Friday.) I can only assume these people have never seen a Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook. I’m not just saying this because he writes for this paper – the man is a genius with vegetables.
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.
But I’m not one of them. The whole thing leaves me confused and unconfident. Not in my God, or my faith, or my parish priest, but in them in the big hats who make decisions about my faith. If Friday penance was such a great idea, if it is now being sold to me as a “clear and distinctive mark of our own Catholic identity”, why was it ever given up? And if it was worth suspending 27 years ago, why bring it back now?
This wouldn’t unsettle me quite so much if it weren’t for something else. For the last 40-odd years, mass has been read using the post-Vatican II text of the Roman Missal; but now it’s been decided that it wasn’t true enough to its original Latin, that it’s too vernacular. So a new text is to be implemented from the first Sunday of Advent this year. For example, instead of replying “And also with you” when the priest says “The Lord be with you”, we will now say “And with your spirit” – which is a more accurate translation of Et cum spiritu tuo.
Did no one notice this before? I’m loving the way the church is selling the new translation to me as an improvement, with not one nod to the fact that the previous translation was lacking. I’m not loving the fact that new missals for every church will cost a fortune. Some priests are concerned the new translation is not inclusive, all “brothers” and no “sisters”. Well, it’s good to know where you stand, and as a woman in the Catholic church that’s usually nowhere.
This was a good opportunity for the church to acknowledge that not everyone can afford meat. That for some people, abstaining from meat isn’t a choice. Or that it realises that fish stocks are seriously endangered – after all, there are about 5 million Catholics in this country. If they all start eating fish on a Friday … well, you do the maths.
I’m used to the Catholic church not being exactly progressive or clear-thinking, but now it’s positively going retrograde, seemingly for the sake of it. Giving up meat, or any food for a day, doesn’t bring me closer to God: feeling included in my religion does.