In memory of Christ’s Passion and Death, the universal Catholic Church has ordained that every Friday, and the season of Lent, be days of communal penance. “On these days the faithful are… to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves… by observing the fast and abstinence [as prescribed].” (Canon 1249)
Penance is an invitation to unite ourselves with the suffering Christ, and in doing so grow in Christian charity. The right attitude of penance is that of thanksgiving and generosity. Grudgingly doing the bare minimum to fulfil the “letter of the Law”, or trying to “earn” God’s favour, will only breed resentment.
As the Body of Christ, the members of the Church live their penance on a common day and in a common way. Hence, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei has determined the following norms of penance for all the faithful:
- Abstinence from meat is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity falls on a Friday.
- Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Abstinence is the norm. However, if an individual discerns that s/he cannot observe abstinence, s/he should choose an alternative form of penance, especially a work of charity or exercise of piety.
Penance should be done with a spirit of generosity. This will help us to grow in virtue, especially fortitude and self-control. In loving and giving, we become more like God, who is all-loving and all-giving. “We love, because He first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:19).
Frequently Asked Questions about Friday Abstinence
Yes, all Catholics age 14 and above are required to abstain from meat on Fridays.
“Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Canon 1251)
Those on special diets for health reasons are excused if so advised by their doctors.
To remember that our Lord Jesus Christ “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), we refrain from eating the flesh of warm-blooded animals. These are:
- Mammals, e.g. pork, beef, lamb; and
- Birds, e.g. chicken, duck, turkey, goose
What foods are permitted?
- Cold-blooded animals, e.g. fish, shellfish and reptiles
- Animal products, e.g. eggs, milk and gelatin
- Soup stock, gravies and seasonings made from animal fat or lard; and
- Non-meat sources of protein, e.g. tofu, gluten, beans
It is good to enjoy the delicious food that God has given us. But, in the spirit of moderation and penance, “Friday abstinence” should not become an excuse to indulge in luxurious non-meat items. Similarly, eating food flavoured or processed to resemble meat upholds the “letter of the Law” but not its spirit.
Abstinence is the avoidance of meat from mammals and birds, without reducing the quantity of food that is normally eaten.
Fasting is eating a considerably smaller portion than usual, this means two half meals and one full meal, with no snacks in between. Only Catholics aged 18-60 are required to fast. Those on special diets for health reasons are excused from fasting.
Abstinence and fasting are not only forms of penance, but spiritual disciplines that help us as disciples of the Lord to make room for the Lord in our lives by self-denial. They strengthen our human will and empower us for mission. They also put us in solidarity with all the poor and suffering, as well as the suffering of Christ in attaining our salvation.
Organisers of Catholic retreats should try to ensure that the food provided on Fridays enables the participants to fulfil their obligation of abstinence.
Those whose everyday lives already fulfil the obligation of abstinence are encouraged to offer up an additional form of penance (see “alternative forms of penance” for details)
Sin is the deliberate refusal to obey God’s law and the prescriptions of the Church. Forgetting to abstain is not a sin, and so does not necessitate Confession. However, one should resolve firmly to do better next time.
A momentary lapse of abstinence is not a green light to continue. As soon as you remember, return to keeping abstinence. If the day is already over, you are encouraged to offer up another form of penance (see “alternative forms of penance” for details).
Since we do penance on Friday to remember Christ’s Passion and death, you should offer up an alternative penance on Friday (see “alternative forms of penance” for details) if you discern in good faith that it would be very difficult to abstain from meat.
One can perform spiritual acts or works of charity, such as:
- Attending Mass or novena
- Eucharistic adoration
- Reading the Bible or studying the Faith
- Giving alms or serving the poor; or
- Visiting the sick or lonely
One may also refrain from things which provide comfort or enjoyment, such as:
- Abstaining from a favourite food or drink
- Abstaining from smoking
- Giving up a form of entertainment, e.g. video game or TV show; or
- Climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift
Note that this is not to be done on a regular basis as the norm is still abstinence from meat on Fridays.
Archbishop William Goh invites us to join him in going further by fasting every Friday for the work of the New Evangelisation. To learn more, visit https://www.catholic.sg/you-are-invited/