As one looks across the Catholic landscape right now, one would think that we were in Lent. The Church is reeling right now from the various scandals that have been in the news since earlier in the summer. This is certainly a somber period in the history of the Church, which is why calls of fasting, repentance, and reparation are being heard all across the nation and into the Vatican itself.
In his Letter to the People of God released on August 20th, Pope Francis remarked, “Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change. The penitential dimension of fasting and prayer will help us as God’s People to come before the Lord and our wounded brothers and sisters as sinners imploring forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion.”
Even though we ourselves have not committed these outrages against the Lord, we are one Body. To paraphrase St. Paul, if one part of the Body suffers, we all suffer. In response to the Pope’s call for reparation, several bishops in the United States have asked the faithful to observe the Ember Days this year. However, many Catholics may only have a faint memory of what these penitential days are.
Just What are Ember Days, Anyway?
First, for the typical North American Catholic, any call to fast or make a penance is usually observed only for Lent. This sadly shows how much we’ve forgotten about the true meaning of penance over the last half-century or so. Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters observe many penitential periods throughout the year, and not only during Lent.
Philip’s Fast, which is the equivalent of Advent for Byzantine Catholics, requires strict fasting and abstinence so as to strengthen the will and spirit, to make reparation for one’s own sins and those of the whole world. It used to be the same for Catholics, with several days throughout the year (e.g., Christmas Eve) being days of fasting and abstinence. Ember Days, in particular, served as a sort of “quarterly checkup.”
These special days of penitence were never banned or suppressed. But once they were no longer made obligatory, their observance fell into disuse. This is similar to what happened with meatless Fridays: Although the bishops decreed that it was no longer necessary to abstain from meat on Fridays, the obligation to make some sort of penitential sacrifice every Friday of the year (unless that Friday falls on a solemnity) was and still is binding on all Catholics. But with abstinence no longer obligatory, this was quickly forgotten. With the current crisis in the Church, it’s clear that Latin Catholics must regain their collective liturgical memories and observe these practices of penitence once again so that the Church may be healed.
When are the Ember Days?
They follow not only the liturgical calendar but the seasonal calendar. Ember Days are observed on the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays following four important feasts in the life of the Church. Those four feasts are:
- Feast of St. Lucy (Dec. 13)
- Ash Wednesday
- Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14)
We just recently celebrated the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on a Friday. Those Ember Days were observed the following week.
The requirements for observing Ember Days are fairly simple. On all of these days, fasting and half-abstinence are to be observed, except on Friday where full abstinence is to be observed. Half-abstinence means that only one of the days three meals may contain meat, typically dinner. Fasting is the same as it is during Lent, with no eating in between meals. During these days, we offer these small sufferings up in remission for our own sins, in reparation of the sins of others that have wounded Christ’s Mystical Body, and we pray for the conversion of poor sinners.
Reparation of Others’ Sins?
There is one other side effect to the forgotten practice of Ember Days: Many Catholics have forgotten about why reparation for sins is an important part of the Church’s prayer life, even if those sins are for someone else’s sins. Many Catholics have honestly asked, “Why should I have to fast, and make penance and reparation, for people who abused children or for men like Archbishop McCarrick who abused vulnerable men?” We should first look to Scripture, where St. Paul says, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).
The Popes, including Pope Francis above, have spoken throughout the centuries on the need for reparation of sins, both those we have committed and those committed by others. In his encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor, Pope Pius XI spoke very boldly:
[H]ow great is the necessity of this expiation or reparation, more especially in this our age, will be manifest to everyone who, as we said at the outset, will examine the world, “seated in wickedness” (1 John 5:19 DRA), with his eyes and with his mind. …
Now, whosoever of the faithful have piously pondered on all these things must need be inflamed with the charity of Christ in His agony and make a more vehement endeavor to expiate their own faults and those of others, to repair the honor of Christ, and to promote the eternal salvation of souls. And indeed that saying of the Apostle: “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Romans 5:20 DRA) may be used in a manner to describe this present age; for while the wickedness of men has been greatly increased, at the same time, by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, a marvelous increase has been made in the number of the faithful of both sexes who with eager mind endeavor to make satisfaction for the many injuries offered to the Divine Heart.
“Make Sacrifices for Sinners”
While some may wonder why bishops are asking for the observance of things like Ember Days, it’s clear that this has long been a part of the Catholic tradition. The sins of humanity hurt our Lord. If we love our Lord and our God, we will console Him by enjoining our small sufferings to His sufferings. By telling Him that even those who have committed heinous crimes may not love Him, we still do, and we want to make amends for the damage that their sins have caused.
Let’s join together with our bishops and leaders and make these small acts of reparation where we can. Prayer will be our only way out of this crisis. Let us not forget the words of Our Lady of Fatima to Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto: “Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to Hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them.”