‘We proclaim your Death O Lord, and profess your Resurrection’
One year ago this Friday, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in our country for his Apostolic Visit. The guest of The Queen, the Holy Father made a big impact on many people during his stay, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In his celebrations of Mass and meetings with religious leaders, politicians and members of the public, he touched the hearts of many.
In imitation of St Peter, whose Successor he is, the Pope confirmed his brothers and sisters in the faith (cf. Lk 22:32), urging us to bear witness to Christ in all that we say and do. To mark this auspicious anniversary, the Bishops of England & Wales have reintroduced for our spiritual wellbeing the traditional Catholic practice of Friday abstinence – i.e., going without meat (or another food if we do not eat meat) and uniting it with heartfelt prayer.
As the Bishop said in his Pastoral Letter last Sunday, penitence ‘is the spiritual disposition by which we all identify ourselves with Christ in his Passion and Death’. Expressed in acts of penance, notably prayer, fasting and almsgiving, it should be a feature of our daily lives as Christians. Just as we pray individually and gather together on Sundays as Christ’s Body to celebrate his Resurrection, by doing acts of penance individually and communally, we identify ourselves with him in his Passion and Death. By going without, we die a little to ourselves: we open our hearts to the Lord so that we may become more like him, and the poor, so that we may become more like them.
Friday abstinence used to be commonplace; contrary to popular opinion, it was never abolished – rather, it was made optional in England & Wales in 1985, when the Bishops suggested that the faithful should choose a form of penance, of which abstinence was one option. However, many felt that something precious was lost in this; it is much easier to foster spiritual discipline when we do something in common, which is why we gather to celebrate Mass together on Sundays, and Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are said in the Portland Chapel most working days. By asking us to abstain together on Fridays, the Bishops are asking us to be conscious of our dignity as members of Christ’s Body the Church; we are not just individual Christians, but members of a holy communion. May we become, as individuals and a Church, more like Christ by our acts of daily penance, including abstinence on Fridays; by proclaiming his Death in our fasting, may we profess his Resurrection until he comes again.