Part of being a college student is making an effort to embrace your faith and make it your own. For some, this means carbon-copying the practice of our parents and other role models. That works for some people. For others, however, this means "going to the source" - not wanting to take someone's word for how things should be done and why, but, instead, finding out what the Church actually teaches on a given subject directly from the Church's documents. Doing this will often yield a surprising answer.
Two happenings in the 1990s made it much easier to be a "to the source Catholic"; one who goes to the source to get answers. These two things are the publishing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (the second edition of which was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1997) and the advent of the internet age in the mid-to-late 1990s. Now, if you want to know what the Church actually teaches, you can find out quite easily. As a convert to the Church, I can testify that this availability of answers was a real catalyst to my conversion: I had quick and easy access to the Church's authoritative teachings on faith and morals. I did not have to have my answers filtered through the personal opinions of someone with grievances against the Church or some sort of baggage. Instead, I could find answers myself by simply opening up a Catechism or hopping online.
Some of the things you discover through this method might surprise you. One prime example is the ancient practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays (all Fridays - not just the Fridays of Lent). During my conversion, I was simply taught that Catholics only do this during Lent - no further explanation needed or given. Of course even I knew that Catholics used to refrain from eating meat on all Fridays but I wasn't sure when this had changed or why. Turns out, Friday was kept as a day of fasting by Christians from the first century (the Didache, a first-century document which explains certain practices of the Church, explicitly affirms this) in honor of the fact that Jesus our Lord died for our sins on a Friday. The strict Friday fast of the early centuries eventually turned into an abstinence (or refrain) from "flesh meats" as a universal sign of solidarity and penance. But the point is, refraining from eating meat on Fridays was an unbroken observance of Catholics which dates back to the apostolic era. In other words, abstinence from meat every Friday is as ancient to Christianity as is the practice of celebrating Mass together as a community every Sunday.
This was the case, unchecked, until the late 20th century. Then, after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI issued a document in 1966 which re-emphasized the important place that acts of penance and abstinence hold in our faith. This document, called Paenitimini, also said that Pope Paul VI planned to reorganize "penitential discipline with practices more suitable to our times." But the document explicitly reaffirmed the traditional Friday abstinence from meat. (Paenitimini, February 16, 1966)
Later in the same year, the Catholic bishops of the United States re-emphasized the tradition of Friday abstinence in a pastoral statement to American Catholics in which they reminded the faithful that "Christ died for our salvation on Friday." "Gratefully remembering this," the bishops continue, "Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church." (National Conference of Catholic Bishops [now known as the USCCB], Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, November 18, 1966) However, the bishops also state that they wanted abstinence from meat to be a matter of free choice instead of blind obedience to Church law. In addressing the form of penance to be practiced by Catholics on Fridays, the bishops stated, "We give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law." (Ibid). The Code of Canon Law introduced in 1983 reiterates the fact that penance should still be undertaken by the faithful on all Fridays and lists "abstinence from meat" as the first example of such penance. (Canon 1251, Code of Canon Law, 1983)
In light of these documents, I found a great post on this very topic in the blogosphere last Friday. If you're on the fence about re-upping your commitment to year-round Friday abstinence from meat as your penance of choice (I mean, really - how much more Catholic can ya get, huh?), I recommend reading the Pertinacious Papists' take on this subject. It is well-written, well-researched and, IMHO, he makes some really salient points. You can find his post here.
Enjoy your Friday!