We are now in the heart of Lent, so that means it is also the season for wonderful, tasty, all-you-can-eat fish fries, capped off with a nice piece of cake.
If it has ever felt like there may be a bit of tension there, Pope Francis put his finger right on the sore spot when, in a recent homily, he gave an example of the kind of fasting the Lord doesn’t want: “Today is Friday, I can’t eat meat. I’ll make myself a nice plate of seafood, a nice banquet. ... I’m observing it, I’m not eating meat.”
He said this amounts to the sin of gluttony. Ouch.
Before we jump in with both feet, let’s note for the record that the Holy Father was making a broader point about hypocrisy. He may not have had an American-style fish fry in mind. He was talking about the same sorts of things Jesus skewered when dealing with the Pharisees: an outward piety that does not carry over into the heart and therefore into the actions of daily life.
Another example he gave is of someone going to Mass every Sunday who doesn’t pay his employees a fair wage. Now, clearly in that example, the pope was not saying people shouldn’t go to Mass every Sunday, but rather that if we are living that weekly Mass in our hearts it will carry over into our weekday lives.
So it would be rash to conclude that all of our parishes should just start canceling Friday night fish fries, which often are beautiful moments of parish life where we gather with our brothers and sisters, perhaps praying the Stations of the Cross together and going to confession, and also often financially supporting the work of the church.
It seems likely these events are ones that we can live in a holy way that reflects the spirit of the season and the day of penance. Going to the fish fry doesn’t have to mean a heaping plate and a piece of cake.
But it suggests we should be deliberate about that and guard ourselves. If we’re going to the fish fry to gorge ourselves on a delightful fish feast, that is something we should remedy.
And the point goes deeper than that. As the Scripture readings in Lent remind us, if our penance is not inseparable from heartfelt solidarity with the poor and almsgiving and the work of justice and our own ongoing conversion, it’s still just an outward show.
We are still nearer the beginning of Lent than the end, and there remains time to make the most of this holy season, preparing for the joys of Easter, when it will be time for a worthy feast.