(Published in the National Post on Friday, October 14, 2016)
It is one of my lasting recollections from a now much lamented childhood, a vivid memory which goes back well over a half a century.
All those years ago, being born and raised in the Roman Catholic faith, I, and all fellow believers, were forbidden on Fridays by strict canon law to consume the flesh of any warm-blooded animal. The practice, known by some as early as the first century and which commemorated the day of the week on which Christ is said to have been crucified, was also reinforced by the imperturbable teachings of the church in the R.C. schools I attended at the time. Catholic calendars, whose Fridays were superimposed with the illustration of a fish, also reminded followers of the obligation.
Nevertheless, this sacred responsibility created some rather strange situations in our family household in a working-class district of Montreal back in the day. My late mother, a baptized Protestant and therefore not required to respect this now-dated ecclesiastic exigency, found herself oddly compelled to prepare a meatless meal for her husband and her children every Friday evening. It was a task she carried out rather stoically, as I recall.
Adding to this drudgery though, as I was not really much of a fish eater at the time, mother always had to cook for me a cheese omelette, surely an unsolicited chore if ever there were one. And as she certainly didn’t like labouring with grease in our modest flat, mother regularly sent my older sister to the nearby ‘Scotch Fish and Chips’ store in order to buy the Friday evening grub for the rest of the devout family.
Despite the delicate humour found in this somewhat paradoxical situation, the ancient restriction regarding the shunning of the consumption of meat on this particular weekday had its foundation in centuries of apostolic history.
Throughout bygone times, Catholic religious authorities emphatically taught that, as Christ sacrificed himself for us, and our redemption, we should ourselves make a small gesture to commemorate his ill-fated death over two millennia ago. In this regard, the weekly avoidance of animal flesh seemed to many to be the most fitting path to follow.
In fact, in very early times, Christians, under constant threat, cunningly identified themselves to one another through the representation of a fish. It is also supposed that six of the disciples of Christ were fishermen: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, and Simon the Zealot. Pieced together, it only seemed logical that the default food of meatless Fridays would be fish. Indeed, the eating of fish often marked venerated holidays in the pre-Christian era as well.
Certainly the story of Christianity is replete with the frequent mentioning of fish. For instance, as is commonly known, the apostles were collectively referred to metaphorically through the imagery of fish. “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” Christ is said to have told his disciples. Then, of course, there is the often cited parable of the loaves and fishes, which saw Christ feed a multitude of five thousand followers with as little as five loaves of bread and two fish.
Much more recently, we know that McDonald’s fishburger was in fact the 1962 creation of an enterprising Cincinnatian by the name of Lou Groen. Groen, whose restaurant franchise was located in a predominantly Roman Catholic district of that Ohio city, had noticed that his sales of traditional burgers dropped off significantly on Friday’s. His fishburger was a way of straightening out that situation. And although his burger creation was an instant success, if Groen had waited a few more years, it might not have been necessary at all.
That very same year of 1962, the first session of the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome. The historic conclave that was conducted over a four-year period had many objectives, one of which was to make the Roman Catholic Church more relevant in an increasingly secular world. Old ideas, such as Masses being conducted in Latin, were quickly cast aside in search of a new approach to liturgy. Other convictions were also put to the test, many of which were found wanting. It became obvious that the restriction with regard to meat on Fridays was near its end.
On Friday, October 14, 1966, exactly a half a century ago today, the National Association of Catholic Bishops announced, with the approval of Vatican City, that Roman Catholics could eat meat on Fridays, effective that date. However, the obligation in one’s life to practice penance and asceticism on that particular day still existed but it no longer had to be the avoidance of animal flesh. Centuries of church practice was quickly ended.
Even though by that time I was old enough to make my own cheese omelettes, mother still looked mighty relieved.