When you hear St. Patrick’s Day, the first things that will probably come to your mind are the elaborate parties, people donned in green, and all things green – even beer. Catholics, however, may want to know whether or not they can eat meat during this time. Why is this so and can they?
Catholics can eat meat on St. Patrick’s Day unless it falls on Lent, which is traditionally when Catholics abstain from meat. But even if it does, the Conference of Bishops or diocese can grant dispensations or an official “ok” from the Church, which allows their parishioners to have some meat.
So what do these all mean and how can St. Patrick’s Day coincide with Lent? If it does, why do Catholics even need a dispensation to be able to eat meat? Let me answer all these questions below.
What is St. Patrick’s Day?
St. Patrick’s Day is the feast day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. It is celebrated yearly on March 17, the anniversary of his death. This has been a religious holiday that the Irish have celebrated for more than a thousand years. However, it was emigrants in the United States that made it into what it is today.
See now, St. Patrick’s Day includes big parades, attended by thousands of people wearing green. You will also see a lot of people wearing shamrock on their chests, which is the national plant in Ireland. Plus, you might notice a lot of people enjoying green beer along with shepherd’s pie, cabbage, and corned beef.
Are You Supposed to Eat Meat on St. Patrick’s Day?
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated annually on March 17. This means that it will always coincide with the Lenten season. Sometimes, however, it can fall on Good Friday, which is traditionally the time when Catholics are obligated to fast and abstain from meat.
According to the Code of Canon Law (#1251): “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.”
In 2023, for instance, St. Patrick’s Day fell on Good Friday. This was problematic for Catholics since it was a penitential time and the holiday is all about fun, alcohol, and food. So what happened? Were all Catholics not allowed to eat meat during that time? Well, not really.
During St. Patrick’s Day in 2023, many Catholics were granted dispensations or official permission by the Church that allowed them to indulge in meat without feeling guilty. In the United States, one of the countries that throw the largest productions for this holiday, 72.6% of dioceses gave their parishioners some relief from the Catholic rule on abstaining from meat on Good Friday. This accounts for 127 of the 176 Roman Rite territorial diocesan bishops within all the states of the country.
Out of these, 93 dioceses offered a no-strings-attached dispensation or at least asked for extra prayers or abstinence on another day in exchange for letting them eat meat. On the other hand, 34 dioceses gave a dispensation on the condition that their parishioners would perform another form of penance. This included praying the rosary, doing charity, or abstaining from meat another day.
Meanwhile, 46 diocesan bishops didn’t give their parishioners dispensation. Meaning, that 26.3% of the dioceses and their parishioners were expected to avoid eating meat on St. Patrick’s Day 2023. (These figures are taken from the National Catholic Register)
With all that said, can diocesan bishops just waive the Catholic obligation of abstinence and fasting? Can they substitute abstaining from meat for another form of penance? Well, according to our rules, yes. The Code of Canon Law (#1253) states that: “The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.”
What Are the Days When Catholics Can’t Eat Meat?
The Catholic days of penance are clearly stated in the Code of Canon Law (#1250): “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent”. In verse #1251, we are also told to abstain and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, including all Fridays. So to make it clear, St. Patrick’s Day is not one of our penitential days. So we’re not obligated to abstain from meat during this day.
That said, there was a time when Catholics were required to fast and abstain on Fridays since it was the day Jesus died. However, through their Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence in 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops stopped making this rule mandatory. In their statement, they said the following:
“Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.”
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops further emphasizes: “Our people are henceforth free from the obligation traditionally binding under pain of sin in what pertains to Friday abstinence, except… for Lent.” However, they maintain that Fridays should be “in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason, we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.”
It should be noted, however, that the bishops still recommend every Catholic to abstain from meat by “free choice”.