The Simple Catholic Snapshots:
- “Mackerel Snapper” was a Derogatory 19th Century Reference to Catholics who Practiced Penitential Abstinence from Eating Meat on Friday
- Penance is a voluntary Self-Punishment Assumed as an Outward Expression of Repentance for Having Sinned
- Abstaining from Meat on Fridays is a Form of Penance
- Lent is the Season of Personal Preparation for Easter
- Yearlong Friday Abstinence Helps to Continually Unify Us With the Passion of Christ
- Let’s All be “Mackerel Snappers”; Let’s Make it a Positive Reference to Modern Catholics Who Love the Lord
The Simple Catholic Truth:
What the heck is a Mackerel Snapper you might ask? Well, Mr. Allison knows, or at least he thought he knew, until he met Sister Angela. With the beginning of Lent, and the associated fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays, I recalled that 1957 movie “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison.” Set in the WWII Pacific theater, we find a rough tough Marine Corporal Allison stranded on an Japanese-occupied island with a novice Roman Catholic nun, Sister Angela. Hiding in a cave to avoid detection and trying to stay alive, a powerful emotional and even spiritual bond develops between the two. The movie is a not-too-serious but entertaining glimpse that contrasts the commitment and passion of Mr. Allison and Sister Angela to their respective ‘Corps’.
“Mackerel snapper” was once a common slur against Roman Catholics, referring to the practice of abstaining from eating red meat and poultry on Fridays. In the film, the non-Catholic Mr. Allison once refers to some fellow Marines as “mackerel snappers” while talking with Sister Angela. He catches himself and quickly explains away his verbal slip-up by stating that they were the “best Marines.” And so the interaction continues and we learn more about this most unusual duo. If you haven’t seen this movie before, then I recommend it as a good Saturday night rental.
Anyway, with Lent started last Wednesday and with Mackerel Snappers in mind, I started thinking more about the practice of avoiding meat on Fridays, not only in Lent but year round. I don’t want to re-hash the history and practice of fasting and abstinence here. Those topics have been getting plenty of Ash Wednesday related press coverage in newspapers and blogs. Instead, I would like to talk just a bit about the idea of abstaining from meat on the Fridays outside of Lent. Personally speaking, I have not held to that practice, not out of laziness, I think, but rather from mis- or no- information. I know some friends and family that do abstain on Fridays and since I didn’t know why they did, and didn’t know why I didn’t, it was time to do some digging and find out.
Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were required to abstain from meat on Fridays in remembrance of the Lord’s passion, and as an act of communal penance.
Ok, that was pretty clear and without too much debate. The teaching and direction of the Catholic Church indicated that practicing Catholics should refrain from eating meat on Fridays in order to align themselves with the humility of the Cross. This was a practice for generations.
Now, however comes the bit of controversy and confusion. In response to Vatican II statements, and within the latitude of the Vatican declarations, the U.S. Bishops could declare that it was allowable to terminate the traditional law of abstinence, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday. In other words, the Bishops of the Catholic Church in America stated that there were other allowable means to comply with the requirement to observe penitential humility on each Friday of the year other than abstinence from meat products.
Unfortunately, this relaxation from strict abstinence of meat for each Friday has been misinterpreted (or misunderstood) as an elimination of the requirement for proper penance for each Friday of the entire liturgical year. In other words, although the requirement for abstinence has been eliminated, the requirement for a proper Friday penance remains.
So where does that leave me now in my quest? I wanted to understand and embrace the most effective Friday liturgical penitence practice that would bring me closer to Christ. Now, instead of abstinence from meat, I could ‘give up’ a variety of things that would point me to the Cross of Jesus. Yes, I could refuse that chocolate ice cream on Fridays, or I could add some extra time to my Friday prayer regiment. Yes, those would be great things for me to do. But what would be the best?
After a lot of prayer and reflection, I thought the best thing for me would be to align myself with the past traditions and practices of the early Christians. Of course, my giving up meat on Fridays is not the same today. At that time, meat was a luxury and as such represented a much more personal and significant sacrifice. For me living in modern days of food production and abundance, it is practically an insignificant sacrifice. However, by adopting that particular manner of penance, I not only remind myself each Friday of His most important sacrifice on that precious Friday some 2000 years ago, but I bond with the countless Christians that preceded me and continue to show me the way.
So, after this Lenten season, after the obligations of fasting and abstinence are passed, I choose to continue my commitment to the Cross.
I choose to abstain from eating meat on Fridays for the entire liturgical year. Common insult or not, I choose to be a mackerel snapper.
Anyone care to join me?