Meat Friday: Thanks, St. Joseph

A Pillar explainer

Friday, March 19 is the Solemnity of St. Joseph. It’s also a Friday in Lent — which usually means no meat.

At The Pillar, we have heard from a lot of Catholics in the past week, all with the same question: “Can we eat meat on St. Joseph’s Day?

Of course, we could just tell you the answer. But we decided to write a whole explainer instead.

What’s the solemnity of St. Joseph?

The 19th of March has been celebrated as a feast for St. Joseph since at least the tenth century, and has been listed in the Church’s calendar in Rome since 1479, and on the universal calendar since 1570. A solemnity is a feast of the highest order in the Church.

In the early Church, devotion to St. Joseph was especially prominent among Eastern Christians. Egyptian Coptic Christians, for example, were celebrating feasts for St. Joseph beginning in the fourth century, a few centuries before devotion to St. Joseph became especially noticeable or prominent, among Latin Catholics in the West.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, Franciscan missionaries began to promote devotion to St. Joseph in Europe, and in the early 1400s, Jean Gerson, a prominent French preacher and academic, urged deep devotion across France. That devotion gained steam in Europe: the solemnity was made universal in 1570, in 1714, Pope Clement XI introduced an office of prayer for St. Joseph, and in 1729, the saint was introduced into the liturgical litany of saints. By 1870, devotion had grown so much that St. Joseph was declared patron of the universal Church.

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Is the solemnity of St. Joseph a holy day of obligation? 

Yes. Also no. Mostly no.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law establishes the Solemnity of St. Joseph as a holy day of obligation, on which Catholics are obliged to attend Mass.

But the code also gives conferences of bishops the authority to suppress some of days of obligation.

In the U.S., the solemnity is not now a holy day of obligation. You are not obliged to go to Mass. But you can! (If you can, of course, covid restrictions notwithstanding).

The history of the solemnity as a day of precept, or obligation, has an interesting little wrinkle.

After the solemnity was established, it was a day of precept for centuries. But in 1911, Pope St. Pius X reduced the number of holy days of obligation from 36 to 8. The Solemnity of St. Joseph was cut from the list. It was no longer a day of obligation.

But guess what? Six years later, with the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, St. Joseph’s Day made a big comeback, returning as a day of obligation everywhere.

The law did allow, however, for days of precept to be suppressed, as does the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Most countries no longer count the Solemnity of St. Joseph as a holy day of obligation, although if you’re in Spain, Indonesia, Malta, Lebanon, or the Swiss Diocese of Lugano, you’ll need to go to Mass (save for any overall dispensation from days of obligation conferred during Coronatide).

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Very interesting for liturgy nerds. But here’s the real question: Can we eat meat on Friday?

Yes.

Even if our bishop didn’t dispense us?

Yes.

The law itself dispenses you from the obligation to abstain from meat on a Lenten Friday solemnity. Some bishops have decreed a dispensation, but that juridic act doesn’t actually do anything, since one can’t technically dispense from an obligation that does not exist.

Thanks, but this all feels a bit pharisaical. Like some kind of “get out of Lent free” card. I’ll just stick to abstaining from meat on Friday.

We’re not here to be your spiritual guides, nor are we qualified for that. But it is worth noting that even the Church’s liturgical praxis takes some breaks from its Lenten disciplines on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, to celebrate the Lord’s foster father with as much reverence and joy as can be mustered. So this isn’t a loophole we’re talking about, it’s the ordinary life of the Church.

Fasting is serious business in the spiritual life. But feasting is too.

What else should we do on the Solemnity of St. Joseph?

Well, the Church says that on holy days of obligation, Catholics should, in addition to going to Mass, “abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.”

Since Friday is not technically a holy day of obligation in the U.S., that suggestion doesn’t technically apply, but at The Pillar, we think St. Joseph would like it if you took some time to abstain from work, worship God, relax mind and body, and rejoice. If you can get to Mass, even, go for it.

Some cultures have the custom of St. Joseph’s tables, or altars, where flowers, cookies, beans, and other food are placed in thanksgiving for the intercession of the saint.

Other cultures have processions or parades. And some people celebrate the St. Joseph’s feast with leftover corned beef— St. Joseph was a frugal dad, so we think he’d be glad that corned beef and Guinness wasn’t going to waste.

The point is to give thanks to God for the man who generously, humbly, and faithfully raised our Lord Jesus Christ, and loved our Blessed Mother.

Ite ad Ioseph, friends. And on Friday, get a steak for the Lord’s foster father.