For many centuries (well over a thousand years), Friday has been a traditional day of penance for Catholics. This is in commemoration of the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross two millennia ago on a Friday. Today, many Catholics have been poorly catechized and don’t realize that it is still the case that Fridays are a day of penance.
For many years, the traditional penitential practice on Friday was to not eat any meat. This used to be a mandated penitential practice, even appearing in the Code of Canon Law prior to 1983. While abstaining from meat is still recognized as the traditional way of observing Fridays, we are now permitted to substitute some other penitential observance in its place. Lent is an exception, with abstaining from meat still a mandated requirement on the Fridays of Lent (as well as Ash Wednesday).
I typically abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year and don’t substitute another penitential practice outside of Lent. The fact that I usually find abstaining from meat to be an annoyance (albeit a minor one) is a good sign that it’s an appropriate penitential practice for me. Acts of penance should not be something that we shrug off as inconsequential. There should be at least a small amount of sacrifice in our mind.
A solemnity is a major feast. A solemnity overrides a normal day of penance. When a solemnity falls on a Friday (even a Friday of Lent), that day is no longer a day of penance. It is a day of celebration because of the solemnity. 25 March is one such day. That is the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary, the commemoration of the fact that God had chosen Mary to be the mother of Jesus. Last year it fell on a Friday, making it a day of celebration rather than a day of penance. There was no fasting on that day, or any substitute penitential act. It would not be appropriate, as it was a solemnity.
This Friday is 17 March, Saint Patrick’s Day. In Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day is a solemnity. Outside of Ireland, generally it is a regular feast day rather than a solemnity. A regular feast day does not override a day of penance.
However, a bishop has the authority to dispense from the observation of the normal penitential practice of a Friday of Lent (other than Good Friday, of course) if he believes that he has a just reason. My bishop has chosen to issue a dispensation due to the large number of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations that we typically have in this area, while reminding the faithful that it remains a day of penance and that we are still to undertake some sort of penitential act if we choose to eat meat. We can pray a rosary, give extra to the poor, etc. He was pretty liberal with the dispensation this year, saying we could pick any day the second week of Lent and not just Friday if we wanted to substitute another penitential act for abstaining from meat.
I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to make use of the dispensation. A dispensation is not a requirement, so I can still go with the traditional option should I choose to do so.