Happy Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus! In honor of the day, I’d like to share why I think Friday abstinence is a beautiful and effective form of penance and also, oh yeah, that Catholics are actually STILL required to do Friday penance EVERY WEEK. Unless it’s a Meat Friday, which–hey look at that! It happens to be today.
The feast of the Sacred Heart almost always falls in June, and, in fact, the entire month of June is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The feast day falls 19 days after Pentecost Sunday, always on a Friday. And you know what that means . . . MEAT FRIDAY! A solemnity on a Friday means there is no obligation to observe a Friday penance. So, bring on the meat! If you have no idea what I’m talking about here, keep reading. All will be explained.
WHAT IS THE SACRED HEART OF JESUS?
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is depicted as a flaming heart, usually surrounded by a crown of thorns, with a cross on the top, and it is often bleeding from a wound in the side. It can be shown on Jesus’ body (often with Jesus pointing to it) or it can be presented on its own.
It is often displayed together with the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is traditionally also on fire, surrounded by a crown of flowers rather than thorns, and is sometimes shown pierced by a sword. (The feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is celebrated the day after the feast of the sacred heart.)
Sometimes you’ll also see a third heart, with lilies on it. That’s for St. Joseph.
While a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of gratitude for Jesus’ love for us, a devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary indicates a desire to emulate the way in which Mary loves Jesus.
In 1673, Jesus began appearing to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun. He told her that he wished to be honored in Eucharistic adoration during a holy hour on Thursdays, and with a feast day devoted to his Sacred Heart, and that he wished to encourage the faithful to receive communion on the first Friday of each month.
It took a couple hundred years, but eventually devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the recommended observances, spread throughout the world, and it was named a universal feast.
WHAT TO PRAY FOR THE SACRED HEART
A plenary indulgence is available for the day, under the usual conditions, for the recitation of the Act of Reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Manual of Indulgences specifies that it must be a “public recitation,” but all that means is that it’s meant to be recited in a church, a religious community, or a family or group of friends, rather than by oneself.
Note: If you’re doing the #catholicsummerchallenge, be sure to check this one off! Getting a late start on it? That’s okay! Makeups and substitutions are allowed!
AND NOW, A MEAT FRIDAY ASIDE
The feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a solemnity, and always falls on a Friday and that means . . . Meat Friday. Now, some of you, hearing that, are getting excited. As well you should. We do in my family. It’s very exciting.
But others of you are thinking . . . huh? Because the fact that Friday penance is still a real thing that is required of Catholics is, like, top secret these days. If you don’t know this, you are definitely not alone. I was pretty flabbergasted when I found out that, in fact, we ARE still bound to observe Friday penance every week, and that abstaining from meat is still the recommended penance. At that point I had been Catholic for over thirty years. How had it never come up ever that this was something we were supposed to be doing? It’s crazy. But it’s true. Let’s break it down, shall we?
Canon law 1250-1251 tells us: “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday”.
So, abstinence on all Fridays, unless a solemnity falls on a Friday, abstinence and fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Sounds pretty straightforward.
However, in 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the Pastoral Statement On Penance And Abstinence. In it, they state that for some Catholics, the substitution of a different weekly penance, rather than abstinence from meat, would feel more penitential. The bishops make permissible such substitutions, all the while reiterating,
“Even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”
They conclude with,
“Let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance.”
Unfortunately . . . it must be said. Friday got abolished. Holy traditions got repudiated.
But there has been a big resurgence over the last ten years or so in the observance of required Friday penance in general and the practice of Friday abstinence from meat in particular. In some places in the world the faithful even have the obligation back, which I personally think is a lovely thing.
For many years now, in our home, we have observed the traditional Friday abstinence from meat as a family, alongside many of our Catholic friends. I have come to love that it is a penance we do in communion with other Catholics, all over the world and throughout time. We can nod knowingly at each other over our cheese pizzas and fish tacos. It’s like we’re in a cool club with a secret handshake, but instead of a handshake, it’s a filet o’fish sandwich.
It’s pretty mild overall, as penances go, right? For me the hard part at the beginning was to remember that it was Friday. I’d go days during the week not eating meat at all, then forget and eat pepperoni pizza—which I don’t even prefer—on a Friday. It was so frustrating!
But, as I got better at remembering that it was Friday, I realized that THEREIN is really the secret beauty of this penance. I have to remember that it’s going to be Friday when I’m meal planning for the week. I have to account for Friday if we are planning a party or a vacation or a date night.
I have to wake up in the morning and say to myself, “Remember it’s Friday!” and then when I get downstairs for breakfast I have to remind myself again and remind the kids and then I have to remember not to serve those meat leftovers for lunch.
And every time I have to remember that it’s Friday . . . I have to think about why that matters.
It requires me to keep Jesus’ Friday suffering and death at the forefront of my mind all day long. It’s brilliant. It’s almost as if thousands of years of Catholic tradition was, I don’t know, on to something!
All that Friday remembering makes us appreciate Friday solemnities when they come. There are seventeen universal solemnities throughout the year, plus some regions have extra ones (for instance, St. Patrick’s day is a solemnity in Ireland, but an optional memorial in the U.S.).
Most of them will fall on a Friday approximately every seven years. We get two for sure each year: Easter Friday and The Sacred Heart of Jesus.
WHAT TO EAT FOR THE FEAST OF THE SACRED HEART
For dinner on the feast of the Sacred Heart, we do meat. Any kind will do, but since the weather is usually nice, it’s a great day to grill steaks on the barbecue, hopefully with friends.
One year, a friend brought over the most amazing hors d’oeuvres platters. There was an Immaculate Heart made of fruit, and a Sacred Heart made of veggies. So cool. I’ve also seen lovely cakes and cookies decorated as the two hearts.
But (and if you have read the introduction to The Catholic All Year Compendium, my book on liturgical living in the home, you’ll know this already) MY go to dessert for this feast day is a slightly weepy red jello heart.
It hasn’t always looked beautiful but, as I explain in that story, in my experience, kids DO NOT MIND imperfect desserts. And whipped cream usually helps.
One of the things we offer at Catholic All Year is a liturgical living box subscription and I am very excited to have shipped out hundreds of heart-shaped pans for this feast day, along with a much improved recipe, so the next round of families can start building liturgical living memories of their own! Also very cool French counter-revolutionary Vendee Sacred Heart Badges and a game of pin the Sacred Heart on Jesus!
If you want to learn more about celebrating feast days, check out my books The Catholic All Year Compendium, and The Catholic All Year Prayer Companion. Catholic All Year Members have access to the print and go membership library with prayer, hymn, recipes and decor for hundreds of feast days, and Catholic All Year Subscription Boxes will deliver liturgical living essential to your doorstep every month.
I hope you’ll give it a try! Catholic All Year is here to help.