St. Patrick’s Day this year fell on a Friday in Lent. For Catholics who observe guidelines about Lenten abstinence, this meant no corned beef (or uncorned beef, for that matter). Here in Philadelphia, however, Archbishop Chaput suspended the directives about meatless Fridays for 17 March. I suspect that some other bishops did likewise. Years ago when I was living in another city, the local bishop railed against the city’s major league baseball team for playing a home game on Good Friday and selling hot dogs at the stadium.
What do these Lenten dietary practices mean when they are lifted for a day of Irish pride but staunchly defended at the baseball park? Setting aside diocesan variations, perhaps the more pointed question concerns the point of these dietary practices in a secular culture where high-end non-meat choices can easily take the place of beef, pork, chicken, etc. Why do I give up the hamburger or the chicken salad sandwich? Why do I fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday?
Perhaps the very phrasing of these last two questions misses at least part of the point. I wrote about myself, me, in my individuality. While it is true that no one can fast for me or abstain from meat in my place, it is also the case that I do not engage in these actions as an atomized individual. An important aspect of these Lenten practices is that, around the world, believers engage in them together. This corporate aspect is manifested, for example, when families gather for meatless meals or together refrain from eating but even apart from these shared contexts, my individual act is simultaneously a corporate act.
In his famous “Letter” of 1964, Romano Guardini wrote about corporate action in liturgy: “Of particular importance for the liturgical act is the action and full participation of the congregation as a body. The act is done by every individual, not as an isolated individual, but as a member of a body which is the ‘we’ of the prayers. Its structure is different from that of any other collection of people meeting for a common purpose. It is that of a corpus, an objective whole. In the liturgical act the celebrating individual becomes part of this body and he incorporates the circumstances in his self-expression. This is not so simple if it is to be genuine and honest. Much that divides men must be overcome; dislikes, indifference towards the many who are ‘no concern of mine,’ but who are really members of the same body, lethargy, etc. In the act the individual becomes conscious of the meaning of the words ‘congregation’ and ‘Church.’”
Of course, Guardini is writing here about the liturgical assembly, which by definition concerns a communal context (or at least a juxtaposition of bodies!). Perhaps if we are clearer about our Lenten practices taking place as part of a corporate action, we can be clearer about our corporate worship when we assemble. Perhaps the reverse is also true, and one reason why we may be at risk of losing the corporate sense of our Lenten practices is our diminished sense of liturgical worship as corporate. Perhaps the point is not *this* shared penitential practice as opposed to other practices but rather this *shared* penitential practice.