An Examination of Friday Penance
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
The reign of Pope Benedict XVI may well come to be known as the Age of Restoration in the post-conciliar Church. To the delight of some, and the scorn of others, practices that had fallen by the wayside have been dusted off and given new prominence in this papacy. While much of this restoration centers around matters liturgical, Benedict’s steady if cautious program of reform occasions a more encompassing look at the current state of the Church.
From the outset, one ought to be clear what the Benedictine restoration is not. It is not an effort to “turn back the clock.” Rather, Benedict has restored prominence to norms that had, over time, become dulled by exceptions, permissions, and general neglect or confusion. Examples abound, but the most famous must surely be this striking line in Summorum Pontificum, Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio: “It is, therefore, permissible to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass following the typical edition of the Roman Missal promulgated by Bl. John XXIII in 1962 and never abrogated, as an extraordinary form of the Liturgy of the Church” (emphasis added).
Masterfully avoiding any volley in the liturgical wars of the past decades, Benedict has changed the entire scope of the debate by claiming precedence or rightful prominence for norms and practices that had never been abrogated in the first place. In so doing, he has claimed the status-quo position and removed the burden of change from those championing the hermeneutics of continuity. Such leadership has undoubtedly opened windows in the Church, allowing for discussions and developments that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. This is a most uniquely Benedictine aggiornamento.
One area of the Church that has perhaps suffered more than its share of neglect is the penitential nature of Fridays. Not just Lenten Fridays, but all Fridays of the year. And not just penance in general, but specifically abstinence from meat. What might seem like a rather remote and insignificant corner of the contemporary Church becomes, on closer inspection, a trove of spiritual riches of which the faithful have largely deprived themselves. A victim of confusion, poor catechesis, and general disregard, penitential Fridays can play a significant role in the renewal of our times.
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