A tale of two feasts, St. Joseph's and St. Patrick's.
March 19th is one of two days on which the Roman Catholic Church typically remembers St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and foster father of Jesus (the other day honoring Joseph, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, falls on May 1st). I say "typically" because this year St. Joseph's Day is being transferred to Monday in deference to today's celebration of the Third Sunday in Lent. Though I accept the principle of Lenten Sundays taking precedence over popular feast days, I'm a little confused that the same principle is not extended to feasts that fall on Lenten Fridays, as St. Patrick's Day often seems to do - it seems a bit strange to me that so many bishops freely dispense the faithful of their dioceses from the Lenten obligation to abstain from meat when St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday during Lent. I'll explain my objections to this pastoral practice a bit later.
Given that today is my name day (as well as the name day of my father and of my late grandfather - Joseph is a common name in my family), I felt I should do something special to celebrate St. Joseph's Day. Knowing that La Festa di San Giuseppe is a major event for many Italian parishes, I attended Mass this morning at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii around the corner from St. Ignatius in the confidence that this church wouldn't let the technicality of a transferred observance get in the way of a beloved feast day. I had this confidence in part because I attend Mass regularly at Our Lady of Pompeii and had seen several weeks' worth of bulletin announcements noting that today's feast would be celebrated with a traditional "St. Joseph's Table" banquet of Italian dishes prepared by parishioners. Though the readings and proper parts of the liturgy were from the Third Sunday of Lent, none could deny that today's Mass was in celebration of St. Joseph's Day - the church was unusually crowded (packed to the gills, in fact), the liturgy was celebrated in both English and Italian, and the homily wove together themes from both the Lenten readings and the feast day. The season and the feast were even better woven together at the banquet: longstanding tradition dictates that none of dishes served at St. Joseph's Table contain meat. This banquet in honor of St. Joseph is meatless in deference to the practice of Lenten abstinence, regardless of whether St. Joseph's Day falls on a Friday and even when the feast falls on a Sunday - normally the day of the week on which Lenten discipline is deliberately relaxed.
Considering the way in which Italian Catholics manage to balance their celebration of St. Joseph's Day with the spirit of a penitential season, the widespread practice of the St. Patrick's Day dispensation from Lenten abstinence for the sake of being able to eat corned beef strikes me as rather strange. Personally, it's hard for me to imagine that anyone would actually want to eat corned beef so badly as to seek a dispensation to do so. To go to such lengths just to licitly consume such bland fare strikes me as a tad excessive, especially when one considers the shallow roots of the tradition in question. Far from being an ancient Irish custom, the tradition of eating corned beef on St. Patrick's Day originated in late-19th century New York. However, even if corned beef were authentic Irish fare I don't see how it could be rated more important than the venerable tradition of Lenten abstinence. There's a dualistic sensibility about corned beef dispensationalism that I just can't abide. Granting a dispensation from the obligation of Lenten abstinence so the faithful can eat corned beef on St. Patrick's Day seems to send a negative message about Lent, suggesting that the penitential character of the season is so onerous that Catholics can't have any fun at all without a temporary relaxation of Lenten discipline. The tradition of St. Joseph's Table sends a different and much more positive message, suggesting that it is possible to have a joyful celebration of faith, family and tradition while still remaining mindful of our Lenten obligations. At least that's my read on things - readers who disagree are welcome to express their views in the comment box. My prayers and best wishes go out to you, whether you celebrate St. Joseph's Day, St. Patrick's Day, or both. AMDG.