I’ve seen a great deal of change during my life that I tend not to even think about most of the time. I am a Catholic and until I was a teenager there was an ironclad rule that none of us were to eat meat on Fridays. The idea behind that ruling was that Jesus died on that day of the week and in remembrance of his suffering we were to abstain from meat as a kind of penance and sacrifice. In 1966, the year that I graduated from high school, Vatican Council II amended that dictate to require only that Catholics avoid eating meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent. A council of bishops later clarified the church’s stance on the consumption of meat on Fridays by suggesting that all Catholics over the age of fourteen perform some type of penance on every Friday of the year with avoidance of meat being one of the suggested forms of meeting that goal. For all intents and purposes the vast majority of Catholics today are no longer concerned about whether or not to eat meat on Fridays. The times of worry about sinning by eating a hamburger are long gone for most who follow the Catholic faith.
I remember the old days when my mother did her best to create menus that did not contain any form of animal flesh. We’d often have tuna fish salad or pimento cheese sandwiches and sometimes she would prepare my favorite grilled cheese. Old standbys were tomato or cream of mushroom soup with slices of bread. We never had access to nice varieties of fish after my father died so the chief version of seafood that hit our family table was in the form of fish sticks, a staple that American Catholics kept afloat for years. Sometimes Mama would use butter rather than bacon to prepare scrambled eggs or she would boil the fruit from chickens and make egg salad. Shrimp was too rich for our budget and we rarely went out to eat but when we did it was usually to a cafeteria and on Fridays our entree was always fried fish.
Some of my aunts and mothers of my friends attempted to become a bit more creative by putting together tuna casseroles and topping cheese pizza with tuna as well. I tended to prefer my mom’s less ambitious Friday efforts that made no bones about eating simply at the end of the work week. Somehow she made those tuna sandwiches and stacks of pancakes seem more exotic and delicious than the pot roasts that she sometimes prepared on Sundays.
When meatless Fridays became a thing of the past for most of us we often joked about the people who had cheated by enjoying a thick steak when they were supposed to be dining on chicken from the sea, and wondered if they were going to stay in hell for their transgressions or if there had suddenly been a release of centuries of Friday meat eaters into heaven. We also watched our liturgies and ways of doing things change rather dramatically in one fell swoop as our mass was finally recited in English rather than Latin, and the priest faced us rather than showing us his back. It was all so democratic and inviting. Suddenly we began to imagine a Jesus who walked among people rather than elevating Himself as someone more special than the rest of mankind.
One of the traditions that had always irked me was that women were required to wear a head covering inside the church. For that reason our school uniforms included little brown beanies for use whenever we attended mass or other religious ceremonies. As we grew older we were allowed to exchange the ugly headgear for chapel veils that perched lightly on our bouffant hairdos without destroying the effect of the coiffures we had created. I vividly recall the silliness of women placing sheets of Kleenex on their heads whenever they arrived at church without the requisite hats or veils. It was commonplace to see the thin white paper hurriedly pinned tightly to strands of hair in an attempt to show respect for the occasion. I had to stifle my laughter at the ridiculousness of the whole idea. Somehow I didn’t think that God cared a wit whether or not a woman was showing her beautiful hair and eventually the church leaders agreed with me and dropped the archaic requirement.
Of course the changing of the rules was not always met with complete agreement. There were those who were horrified that the old traditions were going the way of the buggy whip. They bemoaned the use of English in the mass and declared it to be almost profane. They continued to wear their hats and kept up the practice of avoiding meat on Fridays. They could hardly bear to look at the face of the priest smiling down at them during the mass, preferring to view his backside instead. It took a bit of convincing to get the naysayers to calm down but at the same time there were also those like me who began to question more of the ideas that seemed to have little or nothing to do with the message of love that Jesus so eloquently preached. We insisted that our church become ever more inclusive and less rigid in its dictates. That lead to a great deal of rebellion particularly in the United States where even the most faithful Catholics now sometimes debate the need for many controversial practices.
Still there are those who tend to be nostalgic regarding the old ways. The conservative versus liberal dichotomy is alive and well in the religious world. I remember listening to a man of my age who regaled us with memories of how much he enjoyed the old fish stick days, and how he wished with all of his heart that they would return. He thought the women looked nice with their long sleeved dresses and pretty bonnets on their heads. He longed to return to a past that seems rather quaint and perhaps even a bit unfair today, but I can’t concur. I think of the fact that none of those old fangled rules were created by Jesus but by men who simply came up with ideas that over time that may have once made sense but not so much today.
Now we are allowed to go to church wearing slacks and some even go so far as to show up in shorts, which may be pushing the envelope a bit too far. Few women wear hats and luckily they no longer have to worry that some over zealous cleric will pass over them at communion for the sin of wearing a dress without sleeves. Eating a burger on Friday is no longer a condemnation to hell, if it ever actually was. The edicts concentrate more on ways of living than dress and what is consumed for dinner. Still there are many questions that for now remain unanswered for those of us who see remnants of laws that seem to be out of touch with the compassion that Jesus always demonstrated so freely. Perhaps the time will come when they too are deemed to be unfair and even unnecessary.
I am a woman of great faith but I have trouble with most organized religions that cite edicts that are manmade interpretations of the word of God. I believe that religion is at its best when it is kept as simple as possible. Over and over again Jesus defied many canons that he found to be without merit. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He befriended individuals who were deemed to be undeserving outcasts. He walked among the lepers, the poor and the suffering. His message seems very clear to me and it is not one of exclusion of anyone. Instead it is one of unconditional love. I believe that as long as we follow His example as best we can, we are on the right track. Sometimes we sadly get so caught up in attempting to judge that we actually lose our way. Instead of worrying about how we look or what we eat we are on the right track when we welcome all.