When St. Patrick’s Day last year coincided with a normally meatless Friday in Lent, local Catholic bishops issued dispensations that allowed the faithful to partake in the Irish holiday meal with the traditional corned beef.
But there is no such dispensation forthcoming this year when Valentine’s Day coincides with Ash Wednesday . For the first time in six decades, a holiday associated with love, tables for two and chocolate is landing on the same date as one connected with mortality, cutting back on food and, often, giving up chocolate for a while.
In 2017, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh and Bishop Edward Malesic of Greensburg joined numerous other American bishops in issuing the dispensation for St. Patrick’s Day fare, although some bishops elsewhere did not.
But this year’s combination is a different story. Neither bishop is issuing a dispensation, said officials from their dioceses.
It’s “because of the solemn nature of Ash Wednesday,” said the Rev. Nicholas Vaskov, executive director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Ash Wednesday is one of the most solemn days of the Catholic calendar, when the faithful receive ashes to remind them of their mortality. The date begins Lent — a season of self-denial, penance, reflection and self-improvement in the weeks leading up to the commemoration of Jesus’ death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter.
“For those who wish to celebrate Valentine’s Day, it would seem most appropriate to do so on another day,” Bishop Zubik wrote in a letter to priests. “Often times, when Valentine’s Day falls during the week, this is done out of convenience anyway. Also, since Ash Wednesday is both a day of abstinence from meat and a day of fasting, any Valentine’s Day meals on Feb. 14 should be considered in light of the penitential nature of the day.”
That requires some unpacking.
As for the fasting part: The Roman Catholic discipline calls for Ash Wednesday to be a fast day. That doesn’t mean a complete avoidance from food. Those between ages 18 and 59 should have just one regular-sized meal, plus two smaller ones that combined are less than one regular meal, according to church practice. And no snacking.
So a couple could still have a dinner date — just a simple one, and meatless.
As for chocolate: Technically, there’s no ban and nothing to issue dispensation about. One could decided to make chocolate part of a meal.
But it’s up to individuals to decide whether that’s really in the spirit of things, said Father Vaskov. Giving up chocolate is a tradition for many people, but not a requirement.
For the past 50 years or so, the church has eased up on many of its historic rules for penance during Lent and elsewhere. For example, it no longer calls for year-round meatless Fridays.
The idea is that faith “is something we have to take responsibility for individually,” Father Vaskov said. Whether it’s abstaining from food, adding a devotional activity or doing a good deed, the question is “what’s going to allow us to be able to focus our hearts on God more,” he said.
Of course, Valentine’s Day itself has religious origins, occurring on the Feb. 14 feast day of St. Valentine, an ancient Christian martyr (or possible more than one saint of the same name). He is considered the patron saint of love, as well as of happy marriages and engaged couples.
And speaking of which, there’s no rule prohibiting married couples from sexual activity on a fast day such as Ash Wednesday. That used to be the case in medieval times, but as with other activities, said Father Vaskov, the responsibility is on the individual to determine what makes for a good Lent.