Holy Water, Abstinence and Mimes

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Holy Water, Abstinence and Mimes

ROME, 24 FEB. 24 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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As Lent approaches I wish to deal with some questions which we have addressed in previous years but which are continually raised.

One refers to the novel practice of removing holy water from the stoops during Lent. We explained on March 23, 2004, why this should not be done, quoting from an official reply of the Congregation for Divine Worship (3/14/03: Prot. N. 569/00/L). To wit:

"This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons: "1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being 'praeter legem' is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts. "2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the sacraments is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The 'fast' and 'abstinence' which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church. "The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday)."

Many questions refer to the nature and obligation of the Lenten fast. A fairly extensive treatment of this topic can be found March 14 and 28, 2006, in which we deal with the general rules and acceptable exceptions to the laws of fast and abstinence.

Regarding this, a priest reader from Oklahoma asked: "Is it a grave matter to eat meat, knowingly and without necessity, on a Friday in Lent?"

This is more related to moral theology than liturgy. There are sins in which the matter may be grave or not grave according to other circumstances. For example, stealing even a small sum would be grave matter if the thief knows the victim to be desperately poor and needy. It would not necessarily be grave matter, although still a sin, if it represented a slight loss.

Considering this, I would say that the act of eating meat on a Friday of Lent could be grave or venial according to other circumstances. If this act is carried out knowingly, without necessity in such a way that the Church's laws are openly despised and denigrated, then it would be grave matter and should be confessed as such.

However, there may be many circumstances that could mitigate the culpability. For example, in a religiously pluralistic society a Catholic could easily find himself invited to a gathering where refusing what was offered would deeply offend the host. Strictly speaking, he is knowingly and unnecessarily eating meat on a day of abstinence but finds himself in a social conundrum that would make his fault less grave.

Not that he is off the hook completely. A Catholic should foresee these situations and avoid them whenever possible. He should also be willing to testify and defend his faith. After all, precisely because we have a pluralistic society nobody ridicules Buddhists for vegetarianism nor Jews and Muslims for abstaining from pork. Therefore Catholics should be courageous and visible in observing our somewhat miniscule rules on the days the Church asks us to make a sacrifice.

Finally, several readers asked if it was permitted to incorporate mimes and dramas during the reading of the Passion and other Holy Week readings. We repeat what we said in April 2007: "While such elements may be incorporated into extra-liturgical events such as a Way of the Cross or catechesis, they are never permitted within the liturgy. God's Word must be heard in the silence of the soul with as little interference as possible from visual or audible distractions."

Of course, this rule applies to all seasons of the year. The liturgy is simply not the appropriate situation for such demonstrations even though they are praiseworthy and effective catechetical tools in other circumstances.

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Follow-up: Holy Water, Abstinence and Mimes [3-10-2009]

Related to our Feb. 24 comments on the Lenten fast, some readers asked for specifications.

A New York reader asked: "In your article on abstinence you said, 'This is why people who are sick, very poor or engaged in heavy labor (or who have difficulty in procuring fish) are not bound to observe the law,' but I think you missed one category, those who are allergic to fish. Following this I was wondering what degree of obligation was put on those who are allergic or cannot easily obtain fish, to use other protein sources (beans, nuts, cheese, eggs), before resorting to meat? My mother is allergic, so Fridays in Lent meant bean casserole in our house."

Here we must distinguish a little. Abstinence for Catholics means to abstain from flesh meat — not an obligation to eat fish.

Once again, circumstances play a part. In the developed world there are many nutritious and delicious alternatives to bean casserole, so that it is fairly easy to provide options that require neither meat nor fish.

At the same time, one does not have to go to extraordinary lengths to substitute fish, and an allergy to fish could be classed as an illness that exempts from the obligation to refrain from meat. I therefore think that while it is spiritually better for someone in this condition to try to avoid meat during Lent, they would be able to take it with a clear conscience if this causes a significant burden.

A Michigan reader asked: "On Sundays during Lent are Catholics allowed to continue their sacrifices? For example, if someone gave up television for Lent and he did not want to watch television on Sundays either, would it be canonically incorrect for him to continue abstaining from this amusement? Or by the laws of the Church, should he make a point of watching television in order to show the observance of Sundays as not being days of fasting and penitence?"

Again we must distinguish. One thing is that historically the Church never classes Sunday as a penitential day; another thing is the range of healthy and wholesome voluntary sacrifices that many Catholics offer during Lent. Among other reasons, these sacrifices prepare for Easter, make reparation for failings and constitute an act of inner freedom from the attachments toward worldly things.

Because of the voluntary nature of sacrifices, a Catholic is under no obligation to leave them aside on Sunday and may freely observe them during the entire Lenten season.

Indeed, ascetically this is often the best thing to do, since interrupting these sacrifices can weaken the resolution to make it to the end. Some people, however, especially those imbued with a more liturgical spirituality, might find a Sunday interval to be helpful in living the spirit of Lent. It very much boils down to what each person considers as being most spiritually beneficial to his soul and for the good of others.

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