Some months ago, I made a resolution — and even spoke about it on my radio program — that I would abstain from eating meat on Fridays. I said that every time I pray the Act of Contrition I pledge “to do penance,” yet it occurred to me how rarely I do any voluntary penance (there are plenty of involuntary ones for all of us). I thought it would be a good thing spiritually to return to the traditional Catholic practice of Friday abstinence.
I have to tell you that my good resolution has been a flop thus far. The reason is simple. Most of the time in my busy schedule, often “out and about,” I don’t even remember when it’s a Friday. By the time I do, I’m already halfway though my ham sandwich. Because I am trying to maintain this discipline on my own, I have few if any reminders to help me to be faithful to it.
I am resolved to keep trying, but it is proving hard to “go it alone.” My frustration leads me to some reflections on what this means for all of us in a wider context.
I believe that the reason for the great decline in the practice of the faith that we are witnessing is not just lack of catechetical instruction, although that’s an important factor. Nor is it necessarily the result of a personal decision on the part of people to reject God, religion or the church. What is evident is the lack of the strong support system of family, neighborhood and local community that once sustained the practice of the faith.
Put very simply, if you are an individual who is part of a faithful church-going family, you will likely go to Mass too. If almost everyone in your neighborhood worships every Sunday, you will be much more motivated to do the same. If your community respects the Lord’s Day by refraining from unnecessary work and business, you are not likely to mow your lawn that day. And yes, if your fellow Catholics abstain from meat every Friday, and everyone knows it, then you as an individual will not easily forget that it’s a Friday.
It is not my intention to indulge in an uncritical nostalgia for a past. Our world has changed a lot in the last half century. However, even apart from religion, there is a high human price to be paid emotionally and socially when we are all left to “go it alone.” We can all email or text one another from a distance, but what is going to give us a deep and secure sense of belonging, participating and fulfilling life’s obligations in keeping with our nature as social beings made up of body and soul?
The diminishment or even breakdown of a shared community life is very damaging to people’s practice of the Christian faith. The church, by definition, is not a collection of autonomous and isolated individuals, but “the people of God” united in communion as the Mystical Body of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict recently observed that people “often confuse freedom with a lack of constraints, with the conviction that we can do everything alone,” without God or the church. This, however, is an “illusion” that “soon turns to disappointment, creating disquiet and fear.”
Nowadays we hear the slogan “spirituality yes, religion no.” The implication is that whatever personal “spirituality” I decide for myself is what counts, not some religious creed or shared religious life practiced with others. Recently Bishop Berzosa Martinez of Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain, was quoted as saying that those most drawn to this “new age” way of thinking are “people of the First World, of the middle class, between 25 and 50 years of age — whose stomachs are full, but whose heads and hearts are empty, and who are the great absent ones from our Christian communities.”
Harsh words? Perhaps, but sometimes hard truths need to be said.
Clearly we cannot do everything alone, nor should we, especially in those things that pertain to our faith. Last month the bishops of England and Wales reinstated the traditional obligation of Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays in their dioceses, thus making it a communal practice once again. There has been some talk of doing the same in our country, but that remains to be seen. I know from experience that it would certainly help me. If you should see me on a Friday, don’t hesitate to say “Bishop, remember what day it is.”