Question Box: Lenten questions on meatless Fridays; are Sundays part of Lent?


Q. What is the origin of meatless Fridays during Lent? Why is it considered a sacrifice? Also, what do you think about Sundays in Lent? Can those be “cheat days” when it comes to our Lenten resolutions?

Fr. Hennen

A. Great questions — and timely! From my research, the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays (especially in the weeks leading up to Easter), goes back to the earliest days of the Church. The practice became more standardized over time but the idea of not eating the “flesh meat” of animals (beef, pork, poultry, etc. as distinguished from animal products and from fish) to commemorate the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and death is certainly ancient.

In some ways I think this may be even more of a sacrifice today than it was then, as many of us are accustomed to eating meat most every day. However, in the ancient world, except for perhaps the wealthy, meat was far from a staple food. It was a luxury. An example of this might be in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32), when the father in the story orders that the fattened calf be slaughtered for a special feast upon his son’s return. It is clear that this was hardly an everyday occasion, but only for a great celebration.

Given this, I wonder if asking people to give up meat then would be like asking people today to refrain, if at all possible, from drinking champagne and eating escargot. “Fine. I suppose I can manage that.” Not much of a sacrifice, but the idea is that in honor of our Lord’s ultimate sacrifice our pleasures should be more sparing on Fridays. It is not that we forget the resurrection but that we always carry the memory of Christ’s passion and death — in which he laid his own flesh down on the altar of the cross as the “Lamb of God.”


I do wonder if all-you-can-eat fish fries or dining sumptuously at your favorite seafood restaurant really keeps the spirit of this. Don’t get me wrong, I do love a good parish fish fry during Lent (even if I have to burn my clothes when I get home), but again, the idea is to unite ourselves even in some small way to this saving mystery.

As to holding to our Lenten observances even on Sundays during Lent, I would say that if you are taking up some new spiritual or charitable practice, by all means keep it up on Sunday! It can be hard to build a strong habit if you are regularly skipping days. However, when it comes to giving up something, I would play this by ear. My first rule of thumb for people in deciding what they should give up for Lent is that their penance should not become everybody else’s penance. In other words, if giving up coffee turns you into an unbearable person for 40 days, then drink your coffee and find a different penance. In the same way, if indulging a little on Sunday is what it will take to get you through Lent, I wouldn’t let it bother you too much. It is still true (even in Lent) that every Sunday is, in a sense, a “mini-Easter.” In addition, the Sundays of Lent are not actually counted in the 40 days of Lent.

Again, we need to keep in mind the principle underneath these practices, namely, to become more Christ-like people, to develop good habits (virtue) that might actually go beyond Lent, and to express our solidarity in some small way with Christ and with the poor. It is the least we can do, so pass the tartar sauce!

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to

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