For centuries, Catholics were bound to abstain from meat on Fridays, the day that Christ was crucified and the fifth day of creation when God made the animals. Then, in 1966, the Second Vatican Council relaxed the law to the point where Catholics were virtually freed from the obligation.
"They said if you ate a hamburger on a Friday and you got hit by a car [and killed] you'd be doomed to hell forever," said Gaile Waldhauser of Howard County. "And then they turned around and they said: 'Not a problem.' "
Now, to prepare spiritually for Pope John Paul II's visit to Baltimore Oct. 8, Cardinal William H. Keeler is encouraging local Catholics to refrain from eating meat on Fridays until the pontiff arrives.
"It's a reminder that an extraordinary event is going to happen and we should prepare ourselves for it," said the Rev. Oreste Pandola, pastor of St. Leo's church in Little Italy.
Cardinal Keeler's request, mailed to local parishes Aug. 30, is a suggestion and not an edict.
One church member who welcomes the idea of a return to abstinence on Friday is Bill Devine -- not only because he is a Catholic but because he sells fish.
"It was a big kick in the you-know-what when they stopped eating fish on Friday," said Mr. Devine, 63, who owns Faidley's Seafood in Lexington Market. "I worked with that tradition for years and years and years -- it was a matter of fact that you accepted. I thought they should have kept it. It was one of the regulations that didn't harm anybody and did some good."
Vincent Del Pizzo, an 87-year-old ornamental iron fabricator in Little Italy, never has understood what good it does to abstain from meat on Friday.
"On Fridays my mother would make beans and macaroni and spaghetti with garlic and anchovies and olive oil and a lot of fish -- fish all different kinds of ways," said Mr. Del Pizzo. "But no one has ever explained to me so I could understand it why we shouldn't eat meat on Friday. I still abstain during Lent. I don't know why, but I do it."
According to "The Faith of Our Fathers" by the late Cardinal James Gibbons, who was archbishop of Baltimore from 1877 to 1921, Catholics did not eat meat on Friday "to share in the sufferings of Christ." The sacrifice commemorates the suffering of Jesus and atones for sin.
From the time the custom was adopted by the early church, there have always been dispensations and exceptions to the abstinence rule: for travelers, for laborers, for the ill and the impoverished. Abstinence originally meant refraining from flesh meat and all meat products, including milk, eggs, butter and cheese, but as early as the ninth century, milk, eggs and milk products were exempted.
Abstinence was in strong fashion among the early Christian hermits. In many parts of the world, Saturday was also a day of abstinence for centuries.
"The church teaching before Vatican II was that it was 'gravely sinful' to take 2 ounces of meat on a day of abstinence' such as Friday," said the Rev. Joseph S. Rossi, a Jesuit professor of church history at Loyola College. "It was considered a 'light matter' to take less than 2 ounces of meat on a day of abstinence.
"But moral theology was filtered through the parish priests and parochial school nuns -- that's why you get such a mixed response as to whether or not it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday. The catechism taught that we are forbidden to eat flesh meat on Fridays, but it didn't specify the seriousness of the sin. Rarely did teachers go into the details."
After Vatican II, Catholics were allowed to choose their own penance to share in Christ's suffering on Friday. The church still "recommends" that those older than 14 obey the law of abstinence on Fridays, but it is binding only on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent.
"Younger people today wouldn't even remember the days of eating fish on Friday," said the Rev. John Lavin, pastor of St. Michael the Archangel on Lombard Street and St. Patrick's on Broadway. Father Lavin considers fasting to be a significant spiritual experience but doesn't consider abstaining from meat on Fridays of much importance.
"The last time I remember it being an issue was right after I was ordained in 1966, and my grandparents took me out for dinner. The rule was already changed, but when the waiter was taking our order and I was trying to decide, my great Aunt Agnes said: 'Father will have the fish.' "