On Saturday, May 14, 2011, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales released a brief statement that William Oddie, the former editor of the U.K. Catholic Herald, rightly calls "historic." After decades of allowing the Catholics of England and Wales to decide on their own what penance to practice on Fridays, the bishops have decided to reinstate the traditional Friday abstinence from meat.
The decision will likely come as a surprise for many Catholics, who think that the practice of Friday penance was abolished at Vatican II. That was not the case, however. In 1966, Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, allowed the bishops' conference of each country to "Substitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and the exercises of piety." In England and Wales, as in the United States, the decision was made to allow individual Catholics to decide whether they would continue to abstain from meat on Fridays or substitute some other form of penance.
The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.
In other words, the return to Friday abstinence is designed not only to call individual Catholics to repent but to support one another and to witness to others, both Christian and non-Christian. For Catholics in England and Wales, Friday abstinence will return on September 16, 2011, the one-year anniversary of Pope Benedict's visit to the United Kingdom.
What do you think? Will the bishops' decision make a difference? What penance do you practice on Fridays? Take our poll, and leave your thoughts in the comments!