Sunday, March 19, 2006

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.


At March 19, 2006 9:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The dispensation is usually given with the caveat that some other form of penitence or sacrifice should be performed in place of abstaining from meat. So rather that give the impression that the obligation is onerous, I think it gives just the opposite impression, that the obligation isn't absolutely strict. Not issueing the indult would send the impression that the abstinence is unyeilding, even on one day every seven years or so.

And even if corned beef isn't an ancient tradition from the Emerald Isle, it's a custom for Irish Americans today, and certainly one that this part-Irishman grew up with.

St. Joseph's Day may have its own traditions, but we eat corned beef and cabbage on March 17th. If you don't like it, you're welcome to have a zeppoli instead.


At March 20, 2006 9:42 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for presenting a contrary viewpoint on the topic - I was hoping someone would. You're right about the caveat on the dispensation, though in my experience many people seem to hear only the "meat is okay today" part and ignore the substitution element. I appreciate your thoughts on how the dispensation relates to the general obligation - there's more than one way to interpret the relationship, as my post and your response indicate.

A larger concern I have about the corned beef tradition - especially when contrasted with the St. Joseph's Table tradition from Italy - is that it doesn't seem to be in the spirit of Lent. At the very least, it seems to reflect a different attitude toward Lent, whereby abstinence is seen in much more restrictive terms as something limited to Fridays. The attitude behind St. Joseph's Table seems to be that even if abstinence from meat is only obligatory on Fridays, the spirit of abstinence prevails throughout the rest of Lent - this is consistent with the practice of giving things up for Lent, something we do not simply on days of abstinence but throughout the season. I'm not saying that the corned beef tradition is therefore wrong and should be abandoned, I'm just saying that the spirit behind St. Joseph's Table of keeping meat out of a Lenten feast is more in tune with my understanding of the season.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on the subject. You can have corned beef and cabbage, I'll have my zeppoli, and we'll call it a day.

At March 21, 2006 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Consider this: During Lent, the Gloria is dispensed with at Mass. But on major feast days, for example on St. Joseph's Feast on Monday, the Gloria was sung, or at least it should have been. This doesn't detract from the sacrificial spirit of the season, it just acknowledges that even during that there are times to celebrate.

And yes, some peopel may only hear the first part. They're probably not consistent in abstaining anyway. The people who take it all seriously follow the indult's instructions.

Finally, I don't buy the argument that the Italian tradition is more deferential to Lenten practice. I don't want to get into a debate of cultural one-upmanship, but one could easlity argue the Italian St. Joseph's table is a clever way of getting around any "sacrifice" while technically following the letter of the law.

Anyway, who knows, if history had gone differently and the Church fathers had decided that we would abstain from leavened bread, maybe the Italians would be hoping for the indult! (That, or they would have come up with a cured meat dish of their own.)

At March 21, 2006 9:00 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


To allay any potential fears of ethnic triumphalism, I should note that I'm neither Italian nor Irish, so I have no vested interest in favoring one culture's approach over Lent to the other. I will say that a legitimate plurality of viewpoints on the question of Lenten abstinence is possible. There's even a legitimate plurality of viewpoints on omitting the Gloria during Lent - in the Byzantine tradition, for example, "Alleluia" is used throughout the season.

My suspicion - based on purely anecdotal evidence - is that the attitude toward Lenten abstinence represented by the "Italian" approach is quite widespread in other Christian (and particularly Catholic) cultures. I know of similar traditions of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. In a similar spirit if a bit more strict in letter is the approach to Lenten fasting and abstinence followed by many Byzantine Christians (Catholic and Orthodox), which is much stricter than what Roman Catholics in the West are accustomed to.

In stating my belief that the "Italian" approach is spread across many cultures, I do not intend to imply that it is normative or better than the "Irish" approach. (I'm using "Italian" and "Irish" simply for the sake of convenience - no kind of stereotyping is intended.) I'm glad that different approaches and attitudes toward Lent exist, because considering them in their totality helps us understand better the meaning of the season. Whatever Lenten traditions you prefer, I think it's important to keep them alive.

At March 22, 2006 6:57 AM, Blogger Lisa said...

This comment is actually in reply to "Omis."

The Annunciation typically falls during Lent and is a solemnity as well; however, as I recall -- technically speaking liturgically -- solemnities during Lent include neither "Alleluia" nor "Gloria" (I'm more certain that the Annunciation doesn't so conclude that Saint Joseph wouldn't either). Personally I don't have a problem if a celebrant chooses to include one (and if I am in error, I apologize).

As to the rest re: abstaining, you make some excellent points as does Joe.

What I find most striking about the "St. Patrick's Day Question" in general is that no one talks about the customary (over)indulgences --of the liquid type, not the papal -- that often go along with the celebration of Saint Paddy's Day. Particularly in the context of Lent,I wonder why there is so much silence about that and so much focus on the corned beef.

Of course, I also wonder why so much is made of formal dispensations on this question since the teaching actually allows individuals to substitute penances for special reasons. The language is something close to "... failing to observe the Lenten regulations of fast and abstinence most of the time is a serious matter ..." So, for example, if one had occasion to go to a special dinner -- or even Friday wedding or other significant occasion -- during Lent, he/she could, objectively speaking, "break the abstinence" without "committing a sin."

Ok, enough from me :)


At March 22, 2006 7:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lisa, lacking a good Catholic reference (in the short time I feel like looking for it this morning), see this article:

where it's stated that the Gloria is used on major feasts. Monday at the Basilica of the National Shrine in DC we sang the Gloria, (and used white liturgical vestments) so it is indeed used on feast days during Lent.

Also, I agree that over-drinking is a problem, especially among college students. That's part of an overall societal debate, I think, about alcohol use. In DC, bars were open before the start of the work day! In Dublin, however, I read that pubs were not allowed to open until late in the afternoon. I found that interesting.

At March 22, 2006 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe, have you ever had so much commentary on your blog?? :-D

(BTW, on another topic, congrats on heading off to Fordham. I think Oregon Province no longer sends scholastics to Fordham, replacing it with Regis.

After reading about Richard's move to DC here, I dropped him an email since I'm just a few blocks from Gonzaga--it'll be cool to meet him.)

At March 22, 2006 10:16 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks, Lisa, for the comments on St. Patrick's Day and alcohol - maybe the bishops should say more about that aspect of the holiday.

I'm glad you brought up the "breaking abstinence without sinning" point - I've gotten a number of questions on that issue this Lent (that's what happens when you start wearing the collar, I guess). What I usually tell people is that charity comes first in situations like that - if you're a dinner guest in a friend's home on a Lenten Friday and they serve pork chops or prime rib, I would argue that better Christian witness is given by eating the food served to than by refusing it on account of the fast. Don't quote me on that, though, because I'm just a novice and not yet a moral theologian. ;-)

At March 22, 2006 10:23 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Omis -

Yes, I HAVE had so much commentary on my blog, but not for a long time - once in a while, I'll get contentious debate on a particular post even though I'm usually lucky if I get ANY comments at all.

Interesting point about the Oregon Province not sending scholastics to Fordham for First Studies. Right now, there's only one Oregon scholastic in the Fordham program, and I believe he's in his last year there. I don't know whether they'll send anyone new there this fall, but it's certainly true that in recent years they've tended to focus on other programs. I should note that the minister (i.e., the person in charge of the day-to-day upkeep of the house) at Ciszek Hall, Fr. Steve Dillard, is an Oregon Province Jesuit, so I'll likely be living with at least one Oregon Jesuit next year.

Hope you and Rich are able to get together soon - I'll be visiting DC in late April, so I may see both of you then. Please know of my prayers and best wishes as you continue the application process. Pax,

Joe K nsj


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