Ash Wednesday is fast approaching, and with it the season of Lent — the liturgical period during which Catholics focus on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Foremost in some Catholics’ minds as they prepare for Lent is the perennial question: What about St. Patrick’s Day?
For Catholics all across America, March 17, the feast of the 5th-century Welshman credited with the conversion of Ireland, is a day of special celebration.
But St. Patrick’s Day this year falls on a Friday in Lent — a day when Catholics are meant to observe a day of penance. Because St. Patrick’s Day is not a solemnity, the day of penance should in theory trump the feast.
Unless you’re dispensed, as some Catholics are.
But what is a dispensation? Who can grant one? To whom does it apply?
The Pillar explains:
A great American feast
When most American Catholics think of St. Patrick’s Day, they think of a day of special pageantry and revelry. Cities across the country, often with the involvement of a local diocese, put on parades, hang tricolor garlands, and dye their rivers green.
The day is often marked with a meal of corned beef hash, boiled cabbage, and, sometimes, green beer.
While the theme of the day is often pitched as “traditionally Irish,” in fact the modern celebration of St. Patrick is peculiarly American.
In Ireland itself, until the 1960s, the day was primarily observed as a somewhat muted religious feast, with Catholics going to Mass, a military parade in the afternoon, and — believe it or not — pubs and bars closing for the day.
The more… boisterous American version of the day probably derives more from immigrant community pride than it does from religious devotion to the Catholic saint. But Americans are great at exporting culture, and their celebration has helped popularize St. Patrick’s Day revelry around the world.
But even if the fervor of U.S. celebrations are more cultural than pious, the Church is a great believer in honoring custom. And given that St. Patrick’s Day tends to fall within Lent and even sometimes on a Friday, the Church in the U.S. has a long history of accommodating the day’s revelry.
Days of penance
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice.”
“These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).”
This is all very good, and most Catholics make special efforts to fast and give alms during Lent, and to make special acts of penance by giving something up for the season.
Of course, a lot of Catholics also want to know what, exactly, they are bound to do.
As usual, canon law has the answer. It starts by reiterating that penance is a personal matter and that “divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way.”
But, “in order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance,” the Church also provides some times and ways in which we all offer penance in the same way.
These days are “every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent,” when “abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the episcopal conference, is to be observed… unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.”
When a solemnity falls on a day of penance, well, feasting trumps fasting, and the law says we honor the solemnity.
Bishops’ conferences also have the power to “determine more precisely the observance of fasting and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety,” if they decide it is more appropriate.
All of this applies to adults — kind of.
The rules of abstinence (no meat) apply to all Catholics over the age of 14. The special days of fasting (missing whole meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) apply to “those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year.”
So if you’re over 60, no skipping breakfast for you, unless you want to.
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Dispensations: Who can, and for whom?
As a general norm, canon law recognizes that diocesan bishops have the power to dispense their people from observing any universal or particular law “whenever he judges that it contributes to their spiritual good.”
This general power to dispense is limited only when the Holy See specifically reserves the power to dispense a specific law to the Vatican, which isn’t the case with laws on fasting and abstinence.
Diocesan bishops’ power to dispense is both personal and territorial. Bishops can dispense the Catholics of their diocese (those normally resident there) no matter where in the world they may be at the time — so if you’re traveling this March 17 and your home bishop issues a dispensation, you should be covered.
Similarly, bishops have the power to dispense all Catholics who happen to be in the territory of their diocese — so if your home bishop doesn’t dispense you, but you’re traveling somewhere a bishop has issued a dispensation, you might also be covered.
How do you know if your bishop has issued a dispensation that is personal to his people, territorial for the diocese, or both?
Well, one hopes it should be clear from the wording of the decree announcing the dispensation — which is supposed to be properly promulgated, usually in the diocesan newspaper or the parish bulletins of the diocese.
Decrees, executive acts of governance by the bishop, are supposed to cover a number of canonical bases: they should be issued in writing, treat clearly the law being dealt with, and give at least the summary reasons for why the bishop is taking the action.
In Washington, D.C., Cardinal Wilton Gregory issued a dispensation for St. Patrick’s Day which is something of a textbook example of the way to do it.
The decree was published in the archdiocesan newspaper, and began by outlining and citing the law he is going to dispense:
“Given the penitential nature of the Season of Lent, the Bishops of the United States have preserved in our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, ‘confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice’ (NCCB, Statement, November 18, 1966, n. 13).
The law of abstinence binds those Catholics who have completed the fourteenth year of their age (c. 1252).”
Then Cardinal Gregory outlined his reasons for granting a dispensation:
“During the Lenten season, certain feasts occur which the liturgy or local custom traditionally exempts from the Lenten spirit of penance. The observance of these will continue to be set by local diocesan regulations….” (Statement, n. 16).
“This year, the Memorial of Saint Patrick falls on Friday, March 17. It is well known that Saint Patrick’s Day is a day of convivial celebration for many American Catholics.”
Gregory ended by stating the dispensation and to whom it applied, and cited the law giving him the authority to do so:
“I therefore decree that on Friday, March 17, 2023, all Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington, no matter where they may be, and all other Catholics actually present in the Archdiocese on that day, are, by my authority, dispensed from the obligation (can. 87 §1).”
And just like that, all Washington Catholics, and all Catholics in Washington, are dispensed from the Friday abstinence on St. Patrick’s Day. Eat up, Washingtonians.
A far less textbook example, but a pretty interesting one, is the dispensation for St. Patrick’s Day issued by Bishop Peter Libasci of Manchester, New Hampshire.
His decree seems to have been promulgated by being circulated to the parishes of the diocese, to be either read out or published by them.
And while his decree is a little lighter on canonical citations than Cardinal Gregory’s, it’s certainly still valid — and it gives a rather more in-depth account of the reasons American Catholics celebrate the day, even more so than the Irish:
While in Ireland, the very place of Saint Patrick’s mission of Evangelization, the populace does not observe the Feast Day as is done with such vigor in the USA, it must be remembered:
1) the crushing oppression of the Irish potato famine;
2) the suffering of a people that became clearly a movement to subjugate a whole people;
3) the subsequent emigration from home, farm and family that became a sorrowful but real option for a family’s survival;
4) the reality of hostility to possible jobseekers, outsiders, and particularly European Catholics;
5) the accommodation, inculturation and, indeed, the dignity to endure indignities;
6) the proving of merit, worth, value and, yes, flesh and blood, faith and humanity of every human being brought clear proof that in the face of unfounded fear and the seduction of this particular evil, human beings are surely God’s children whose lives and whose fate, are liable to God’s judgment.
Saint Patrick’s Day, over generations of skepticism, has been embraced with festive celebration.
Here in the USA, Saint Patrick’s Day has heralded this reality into a day peculiarly its own. Rising, as it were, from the ashes of oppression, prejudice, suspicion and an evil animosity, all are invited, and most join a happy celebration of solidarity.
With all of this in mind, I, as Bishop of the Diocese of Manchester, grant to all Catholic men and women, boys and girls of the Diocese of Manchester and all visitors as well, a dispensation from Abstinence from Meat on Friday, March 17, 2023.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Of course, a canonist might quibble about Libasci dispensing all Catholic “boys and girls” from the obligation to abstinence, since the law doesn’t bind children under 14.
But you do have to admire his rhetorical style.
But what if…?
Catholics (at least canonists) love asking questions, and love poring over the details of episcopal decrees, canons, and policy statements.
But while a lot of local bishops have already issued dispensations for this St. Patrick’s Day - and it’s fairly easy to find media reports announcing them - the actual text of their decrees itself isn’t always that easy to find.
So, what if you are not 100% sure about the terms of a dispensation granted by your bishop?
What if it’s not immediately clear to whom it applies — Catholics of the diocese everywhere, or all Catholics in the diocese, or both?
Canon law provides that the bishop can dispense “his subjects even though they are absent from the territory, and, unless the contrary is expressly established, also with respect to travelers actually present in the territory.”
So, if in doubt, you can presume that a dispensation granted to the Catholics of the diocese also applies to all those in the diocese, even if they are from somewhere else.
But what if you aren’t sure if your bishop has issued a dispensation at all?
If you really aren’t sure if your bishop has issued a dispensation, and if traveling to the neighboring diocese is a little too far to go for corned beef, you can always ask your parish priest to dispense you.
Not too many Catholics know this, but the Code of Canon Law gives pastors of parishes the power to “grant in individual cases a dispensation from the obligation of observing a feast day or a day of penance,” as long as he has a “just cause” and the local bishop hasn’t provided differently.
Here’s the catch: the law says the pastor can do this in “individual cases,” which means one person at a time.
So if you want to have a quiet St. Patrick’s Day dinner at home, you better invite Fr. Pastor, and you’d better make sure he dispenses each member of the family - over 14 years old, at least, individually.
If you’re having a party, Father could stand at the door to dispense every single guest as they arrive — as long as everyone you invite is his parishioner.
While bishops have the general power to dispense from universal and particular laws, there is one big caveat — the power only extends to ecclesiastical laws, meaning those laws which the Church has promulgated on her own authority.
The Church also recognizes and codifies certain aspects of divine and natural law, which cannot be dispensed by the Church, because God Himself is the legislator.
So while the Church can dispense from her own rules, she cannot allow you to do something unnatural. For example, canon law lists a number of impediments to marriage which can make a union invalid, and the Church can dispense from most of them, but not the divine and natural law ones — no tribunal has the power to permit siblings to marry, for example.
What does this have to do with St. Patrick's Day?
Just remember, green beer is unnatural. So whatever else your dispensation might cover, it cannot grant you permission to do the unnatural. Otherwise, enjoy.