Fish on Friday

St Ignatius of Antioch, memorial, based on Romans 4.13,16-18, Luke 12.8-12

Back in 1966, in the heady days following the Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI altered the Church’s ancient discipline of abstinence from meat on Fridays, leaving it up to bishops’ conferences how this particular discipline should be observed in their own countries. A year later, here in England, the bishops abolished this compulsory abstinence.

The American bishops did the same thing, but they urged American Catholics to continue this practice as a gesture of solidarity and thanksgiving for the Passion of Christ, faithful to Christian tradition, and to help preserve “a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world”.

The strange contrast is that the English bishops wanted exactly the opposite. They didn’t want a difference – not saving, and not necessary – from the spirit of the world. Most bizarrely, they enumerated the problems and inconveniences of abstaining from meat on Friday. Abstinence, they said, put Catholics in a socially awkward position, a position of embarrassment. “While an alternative dish is often available, it is questioned whether it is advisable in our mixed society for a Catholic to appear singular in this matter. Non-Catholics know and accept that we do not eat meat on Fridays, but often they do not understand why we do not, and in consequence regard us as odd.” God forbid that we Catholics should be socially odd!

Here the English bishops missed a great opportunity for catechesis, for reinforcing this wonderful and ancient practice, and providing a stronger theological undergirding for what was feared to be turning into a routine, mindless act for many.

But more than that, they seriously misunderstood the power of religious symbols and gestures. The whole point of such gestures is that they disrupt and disturb our comfortable secular order. Of course religion should intrude into our lives. Of course religion should disrupt the dinner table, re-order our daily priorities, interfere with – in the sense of ordering correctly – the marital bed. That’s what the Gospel of Jesus does!

Perhaps the focus on social acceptability is a particularly English disease. Recently the relics of St Therese made a visit to this island. The idea had first been mooted in 1997, but had to wait 12 years because the then archbishop of Westminster, the late Cardinal Basil Hume, vetoed this proposal, allegedly because it might revive the image of English Catholics as medieval, superstitious and a group apart – an image he had worked so hard, and so successfully to dispel.

In this fear, the late Cardinal was correct. The visit of St Therese’s relics has shown that Catholicism is not mainstream English, nor will it ever be, until the English return to Catholicism. The Church is the leaven that must transform the dough of the world, not the other way round. In strikes us today as excruciatingly naive that at the time of the Second Vatican Council, many of the conciliar documents adopt an uncritically optimistic view of the secular realm, its gifts and its talents. The world is not a graced gift as such to the Church. Instead the world is that which needs redemption, through the power of Christ’s cross alone.
Left to its own ungraced devises, the history of the world is not of progress as such. Technologically, yes, the world progresses. But as a whole, what the world is building – without grace – is the kingdom of the antichrist, with many antichrists along the way, awaiting the full manifestation of the son of perdition himself, standing in the holy place where he should not. Make no mistake. That is where nature without grace will lead.

That is why it is so important that we Christians should not be naive about the world, or blind to our own weaknesses. The Gospel must intrude into our lives, into the fabric of our lives, and order everything according to this one only standard of Christ. Then, by the small sacrifices we must make for our faith, however socially inconvenient they may be, we will be formed in the image of Christ – Christ who made the good confession before Pilate (cf. 1 Timothy 6:13-14). The Church is called to carry her cross after her Lord, that is, we are first of all a Church of martyrs –witnesses to Christ.

St Ignatius, called the God-bearer, the saint whose memorial we keep today, was the third bishop of Antioch – the place where Christians were first called Christians, and he is the earliest known person to use the word ‘Catholic’ to describe the Church. As he was dragged off to his martyrdom in Rome, he wrote, “I am dying willingly for God’s sake. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” We may not all die for our Faith, but we must all be martyrs spiritually, confessing Christ boldly before all men, so that He may acknowledge us before the Father.