Surprising FAQs About Lent

Chicken on grill

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The disciplines and practices of Lent in the Catholic Church can be a cause of confusion to many non-Catholics, who often find ashes on foreheads, crosses made of palms, and statues covered in purple and veneration of the crucifix—let alone the whole idea of not eating meat and “giving something up for Lent”—perplexing. But a lot of Catholics also have questions about certain aspects of our Lenten observance that may seem obvious to other Catholics. It is clear that there is a lack of information—or, in some cases, a wealth of misinformation—on the internet about them.

So, without further ado, here are some frequently asked questions about Lent.

Is Chicken Meat?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: This question would probably leave every generation of Catholics that came of age before 1966—when Pope Paul VI issued his document Paenitemini revising the Church’s ancient traditions concerning fasting and abstinence—scratching their heads. “Of course chicken is meat,” they would say. “How could anyone think otherwise?”

And yet a significant number of Catholics today do think otherwise, or at least are unsure. The reason has to do with cultural changes both within and outside of the Church. Within the Church, the decay of the ancient practice of abstaining from meat on every Friday of the year and its restriction to Ash Wednesday and the seven Fridays of Lent meant that the traditional knowledge of what the practice entailed fell by the wayside. It’s sort of like trying to remember what’s different about Midnight Mass at Christmas, or the Easter Vigil, or the service on Good Friday: The length of time between these yearly celebrations is just long enough to let the details fade.

In the culture as a whole, changes in diet have led to the creation of distinctions that didn’t mean much in the past—for instance, between “red meat” (primarily beef and game) and “white meat” (poultry, especially chicken and turkey). But “meat” (or “flesh-meat”) traditionally meant the flesh of mammals or fowl, as opposed to the flesh of fish and other seafood, amphibians, and reptiles. In other words, the restriction wasn’t on “red meat,” as we understand it today, but essentially on warm-blooded creatures—a category in which chickens and all other poultry clearly belong.

Is Pork Meat?

Yes, the National Pork Board at one time marketed pork as “the other white meat,” but as we have seen above, the law of abstinence has nothing to do with “red meat” versus “white meat” but rather with the flesh of mammals and fowl. So, yes, pork is meat, and you can’t eat it on days of abstinence.

Is Bacon Meat?

Now you’re just pulling my leg. Anything that delicious has to be meat.

Why Isn’t Fish Meat?

Contrary to what you may have heard, fish isn’t exempt from the law of abstinence because Saint Peter was a fisherman and the early Church made all its money from selling fish. Instead, as a cold-blooded creature, fish falls outside the traditional understanding of “flesh-meat.” Still, it’s interesting to note that, in the early days of the Lenten fast in the Western Church, many Christians avoided all flesh, warm-blooded or cold-blooded. To this day that remains the general practice in the Eastern Church on days of strict fasting, with fish being allowed only on solemnities (high feasts) during Lent. 

Is There Any Time When I Can Eat Meat on a Friday in Lent?

Any feast that is classified as a solemnity—the highest type of feast in the current calendar of the Catholic Church—is essentially the same as a Sunday. And from apostolic times, the Church has forbidden fasting on Sundays. There is one solemnity that always falls in Lent (the Feast of Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary), and another (the Annunciation of the Lord) that usually does. When either of those feasts falls on a Friday, the requirement to abstain from meat is waived.

Beyond Saint Joseph’s Day and the Annunciation, if you are below the age of 14 or in ill health, you are not required to abstain from meat. But unlike fasting, which you are no longer required to do after you reach the age of 59, there is no upper age limit on the practice of abstinence. 

Can I Eat Corned Beef When Saint Patrick’s Day Falls on a Friday?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Maybe. But not because Saint Patrick’s Day is a solemnity. (It isn’t... except where it is—see the next question.) Individual bishops, however, always have the authority to waive the requirements of the law of abstinence both for individuals and for any groups of faithful in their diocese, up to and including their entire flock. So if the bishop of your diocese is of Irish descent, and Saint Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday, there is a pretty good chance that he will waive the law of abstinence in honor of Saint Patrick. But if he does so, make sure you read his decree carefully—some bishops only waive the requirement to abstain so long as you are eating corned beef and not, say, bangers and mash or Irish stew.

Yet what if your bishop is an Englishman or German who simply cannot stand corned beef and has no sympathy for those who love it? Then you can have a potato with your pint of Guinness on Saint Paddy’s Day and cook your corned beef the day after. It will probably be cheaper to buy it on March 18 anyway.

But What If I’m Irish?

Aren’t we all just a little bit Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day? Oh—you mean you’re really Irish, as in a resident of the Emerald Isle, and not an honorary O’Malley or, say, an American or Australian of Irish descent. In that case, you’re in luck! In Ireland and Ireland alone, Saint Patrick’s Day is a solemnity which means you can eat not only corned beef but bangers and mash and even Irish stew.

Can I Get Ashes More Than Once on Ash Wednesday?

(Looks like we ran out of questions about meat.)

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Why? All right—so that’s no longer than the short answer. But seriously—why would you need to get ashes more than once on Ash Wednesday? There’s no requirement that you keep them on all day if you get them, not to mention that there’s no requirement that you get them in the first place, because Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, and even if it were, you could go to Mass on Ash Wednesday and satisfy your obligation without getting ashes. So if you do get ashes and they fall off or you accidentally brush them off, you don’t need to go back for a second round. And if you feel compelled to do so—if you can’t stand the thought of not having ashes on your head all day long—you might consider whether it’s possible that you are missing the actual point of Ash Wednesday.

If I Forget to Break Fast on Sunday, Can I Eat It on Monday Instead?

Fasting, as mentioned above, has been prohibited on Sundays since apostolic times. So if you give up something for Lent—chocolate or beer or donuts or television or whatever else it might be—you can indulge in it on the Sundays in Lent. (That, by the way, is why Ash Wednesday falls 46 days before Easter Sunday, even though we say that the Lenten fast is 40 days long—46 days minus the six Sundays of Lent equals 40 days.)

But what if Sunday rolls around, and you forget about that chocolate bar you had saved up—can you eat it the next day instead? Well, yes—but perhaps not for the reason you might think. Those things that we give up for Lent—outside of what the Church requires of us regarding fasting and abstinence—are all voluntary. If you give up chocolate for Lent but go ahead and eat a candy bar anyway, you haven’t committed a sin; it’s not like deliberately eating a big juicy burger on Good Friday.

That said, there’s a spiritual purpose to our voluntary fasting: We’re giving up something good in order to concentrate on something even better—namely, our spiritual life. Making exceptions to our voluntary fast isn’t a sin, but it does run contrary to the purpose of our sacrifice. So if you really want to eat that candy bar on Monday, you can do so... but before you do, you might consider whether the fruit of your sacrifice would be greater if you did not.

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ThoughtCo. "Surprising FAQs About Lent." Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, ThoughtCo. (2021, September 16). Surprising FAQs About Lent. Retrieved from ThoughtCo. "Surprising FAQs About Lent." Learn Religions. (accessed March 21, 2023).