By now, it is a well-known story. In the early 1960s, a man named Lou Groen noticed a dramatic decline in business on Fridays at his McDonald’s restaurant in Cincinnati. He realized that this was due to the city’s large Catholic population – and Catholics did not eat meat on Fridays. So, Groen approached Ray Kroc, the franchise founder, and suggested that they introduce a fish sandwich to the menu. In 1962, the Filet-o-Fish appeared on menus in McDonald’s restaurants throughout the country, and was a great success. To this day, McDonald’s sells about 25% of its Filet-o-Fish sandwiches during the season of Lent.
The Church’s traditional practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays goes back to the early centuries of the Church. Catholics have always treated Friday as a day of penance, on which we remember the sufferings of Christ, and unite our sufferings (even if small) to His, in atonement for our sins and as a way of drawing us closer to our merciful Savior. In those early days, the discipline affected the eating habits of the rich more than the poor, who were less likely to be able to afford the regular consumption of meat, and whose diet mostly consisted of grains, fruits, and vegetables. As time went on, people began to eat fish on those days of abstinence, distinguishing the flesh of fish, which were cold-blooded water animals, from the flesh of warm-blooded land animals. With the experience of economic growth after the Middle Ages, more people could afford the cost of fish, and with the development of efficient modes of transportation, more people had access to it. Thus, it became more common for Catholics to observe the day of abstinence from meat on Fridays by eating fish, rather than only plant-based foods. The communal Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays was a cultural marker, something that set Catholics apart as a group. We even came to embrace intended slurs such as “fish-eater” and “mackerel snapper” as a badge of honor. But this ancient practice began to wane in the late 1960s, when Pope St. Paul VI urged that the practices of fasting and abstinence be adapted to local economic conditions, so as not to unduly burden the poor. In response, the Bishops of the United States in 1966 modified the rules on fasting and abstinence. Many observers, unfortunately, misinterpreted these changes as the abolition of the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays throughout the year. In fact, the Bishops retained the precept that Catholics are to practice some form of penance on Fridays throughout the year, declaring abstinence from meat as the most fitting form of observance. While Catholics still remain obliged to abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent, we may choose to give up some other food or activity on Fridays outside of Lent. The Bishops also encouraged special acts of charity among the faithful on Fridays, saying that they could serve as a substitute for the otherwise required acts of penance and abstinence.
This Friday, March 25, is one of the few exceptions to the rule about Friday being a day of penance. That’s because March 25 is the Solemnity of the Annunciation – the celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Solemnities are the most important feast days of the year, so fasting and abstinence aren’t appropriate, even in the midst of Lent. That means if this Friday rolls around and you find yourself hankering for a grilled piece of warm-blooded land animal flesh, feel free to indulge, and give thanks to God for the gift of Our Savior, He who is the Word made Flesh.