US Catholic Bishops: Take a Mulligan on St. Patrick's Day

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

(Clarifies remarks by Washington Archdiocese spokesperson.)

( - Many U.S. Catholics will be allowed to partake in the St. Patrick's Day tradition of corned beef and cabbage Friday, in spite of the church's restrictions on eating meat on Fridays during the Lenten season.

The Lenten observance honors the biblical account of Jesus' 40-day fast in the desert. The season begins on Ash Wednesday, which was March 1 this year, and ends on Easter Sunday, which falls on April 16 this year. The Sundays in between Ash Wednesday and Easter are excluded from the 40-day count.

Traditionally, Catholics over the age of 14 must refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent under the law of abstinence.

But this year, St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday, prompting almost half of the bishops in the United States to grant dispensations to allow their parishioners to eat corned beef. The dispensations allow members of the congregation to break the law of abstinence if they perform another act of penance.

According to the Catholic blogger Rocco Palma, who has followed this year's St. Patrick's Day dispensations closely on his blog -- Whispers in the Loggia -- at least 71 of the nation's 197 dioceses have granted dispensations for Friday.

Many dioceses suggest other forms of penance to make up for eating meat on Friday. Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted, in granting dispensation, suggested that those who partake in corned beef on Friday try "fasting from a television show [or] visiting someone who is sick or in prison."

Through a spokesman, Susan Gibbs, director of communications of the Washington Archdiocese, said the St. Patrick's Day dispensation is "kind of a tradition." Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's predecessor, Cardinal James Hickey, also granted a dispensation in 2000, the last time the holiday fell on a Friday.

Others, like Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz from Lincoln, Neb., and Bishop Carl Mengeling from Lansing, Mich., recommended that parishioners choose another day of the week to abstain from eating meat.

But a few bishops aren't granting dispensations. On his blog, Palma counts at least four dioceses - in Denver, Miami, Harrisburg, Penn., and Sioux City, Iowa - where Catholics are still expected to observe the Friday fast on March 17.

The website for the Denver archdiocese provides guidelines for the season of Lent, noting that "abstinence from meat is to be observed on all Fridays of Lent."

Jeanette DeMelo, spokeswoman for Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, told Cybercast News Service that dispensations in Denver will be made on an individual basis but that she was "not aware of pastors having granted this to someone."

She said would-be meat eaters on Friday must ask their pastor for a dispensation and must present a "good cause" for needing to eat meat on Friday. She added that parishioners would be required to abstain from meat on another day if they were granted permission.

"They might not grant it to some college students ... who just want to go out and get drunk," she joked, acknowledging that St. Patrick's Day is known for high levels of alcohol consumption.

But she said a "very Irish family" that wants to eat corned beef with their St. Patrick's Day celebration would probably have good cause for dispensation.

Father James Lyons, vicar general for the Harrisburg, Pa., diocese, told Cybercast News Service that Bishop Kevin Rhoades did not grant a general dispensation because abstaining from meat is "a very important discipline in the church" and he wanted parishioners to remember the importance of St. Patrick, who according to Rhoades, was "himself rather austere in his own spiritual life."

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