Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?

Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?, by Michael P. Foley; published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2005

When I picked up this intriguingly titled paperback, I expected it to be a zippy read, informative, but light and amusing. It is informative all right, and amusing in parts, but it is anything but light. A quick read only because it is so interesting you don’t want to put it down, this little tome educates as well as entertains, informing the reader, as the book’s subtitle says, of the Catholic origin of just about everything! While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, it certainly is astounding to learn of how many words, practices, and historical developments our Catholic Faith has been responsible for, in whole or in part.

Let’s begin with the title. Just why do Catholics eat fish on Friday – or, better said, why do Catholics abstain from warm-blooded flesh meat on Friday? The obvious answer that every Catholic should know is that it is a penance imposed by the Church to commemorate the day of the Crucifixion of Our Lord – to enable us to make a small sacrifice for the incredible sacrifice He made for our salvation. Why, then, is fish allowed? The drawing of a symbolic fish in the dirt was a way that the early Christians knew each other when it was dangerous to admit in public that one was Christian. Our Lord cooked fish for His Apostles after His Resurrection, and most of these men were fishermen. After He established His Church, these fishermen became “fishers of men” for the Kingdom of God.

Did you know that the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Friday was the reason for the creation of McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich?  Because hamburger sales dropped off noticeably on Fridays, the owner of the franchise in Cincinnati introduced the new offering, and sales picked up again. Sadly, many Catholics are not aware that the Friday abstinence rule is still in effect. The post-Vatican-II modification in Church law only allowed the consumption of meat if some other sacrifice or good work was substituted in its place, such as praying the Stations of the Cross, saying extra Rosaries, or some other additional similar offering.

Because monks of the Middle Ages contributed greatly to viniculture, many kinds of wines have a Catholic origin. Specifically, Dom Perignon, cellar master of a Benedictine Abbey in the Champagne region of France, discovered the methode champenoise by inventing stronger containers that could contain the gas released by the fermentation process. The story goes that when he tasted the first product of the new method, he called to his fellow monks, “Brothers, come quickly: I am drinking stars!” The Christian Brothers are known for their wines and brandies. Then, there is the famous Chartreuse liqueur from the Carthusian Charterhouse in Voiron, France, which still makes its famous green-colored aperitif, the formula of which is known by only three monks in the cloister. When one dies, the secret is revealed to a new monk. Chartreuse supposedly is concocted of one hundred thirty herbs, some of which are picked by hand from the nearby mountainside. It was perfected in 1605, but did not leave the walls of the cloister until some French army officers publicized its virtues in 1848.

A few other strong beverages having some Catholic influence are Benedictine, Frangelico, the wine Chateauneuf-de-Pape (New Castle of the Pope), several beers made by monks, like La Trappe and Chemay and the label on the Jagermeister bottle, which has a picture of a stag with a cross between his antlers, an allusion to the conversion of Saint Hubert, patron saint of hunters. To top off our list of strong drink, we sip a cup of cappuccino, named after Blessed Marco D’Aviano, a Capuchin friar and powerful preacher who rallied Christian troops, Catholic and Protestant alike, before the Battle of Vienna in 1683, spurring them on to victory against the Turks. Legend has it that the good Franciscan found sacks of coffee beans left behind by the Turks in their haste to retreat. After brewing himself a cup, he found it too bitter for his taste; so he added milk and honey, thus creating the first cup of the tasty beverage. The Viennese named it “little Capuchin” (cappuccino) after Friar Marco whose habit was the same color as the drink!

Mr. Foley includes a broad spectrum of topics in this gem – manners and etiquette, the arts, theater, sports, science, politics, holidays, food and drink, Biblical expressions that have been adopted into the vernacular.

My favorite chapter of the book is titled, ‘WORDS, WORDS, WORDS – Catholic, Anti-Catholic and Post-Catholic,’ wherein we discover that the first Latin author to use the term etymology to indicate the study of words was Saint Isidore of Seville.

Here are a few examples of Catholic etymologies: Saint Thomas More first used the words integrity and utopia. Agon was the Greek work signifying combat. Saint Luke (22:44) describes Our Lord’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane before His Passion as the Agony in the Garden. Soliloquies, a word which we want to associate with Shakespeare, was first used by Saint Augustine in the fourth century, as a title for his dialogue between himself and Reason. The Devil’s Advocate was the title given to the cleric whose duty it was to compile as many negative things against a candidate for canonization, not to prevent the event, but to assure that the candidate was truly worthy of sainthood.

The popular expression “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” was first said by Saint Ambrose to Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica, when they inquired as to which city’s fasting custom they should observe on a visit to Rome – the city of Milan, where Ambrose was bishop and Augustine resident, or the city of Rome.

The expressions included in the “ANTI-CATHOLIC – OR AT LEAST A BIT IRREVERENT” section are really fascinating.  To learn about these and many, many others you will have to read this wonderfully informative book yourself.  It is the kind of book that you want to have handy at all times because it certainly bears reading again and again.

Buy the book at Amazon.com.