LOWER TOWNSHIP — Leigh Finley was acting like a kid in a candy store, or a traditional Catholic at a fish market during Lent.
Scallops, monkfish, shrimp, salmon and other seafood items piled up on the counter here at the Lobster House Fish Market. Finley drove here from Cumberland County on Tuesday just to do her fish shopping for Friday’s dinner.
“I have a big family and we’re Irish Catholic,” Finley, 42, of Vineland, explained.
It’s the Lenten season, and for the Finley family that means no meat on Fridays as an act of penitence. The religious tradition observed from Ash Wednesday to Easter dates back centuries.
“I think it’s a good tradition. Jesus did his fasting. I think it teaches you discipline and sacrifice. That’s all Lent is about. It’s good for the kids. These days they get so much. They’re spoiled rotten. It’s good to sacrifice and give something up,” Finley said.
It’s also good for the seafood business, which happens to be a huge part of the southern New Jersey economy. The problem is: Fewer Catholics are observing the old traditions.
“It’s not like it was in the past. Ash Wednesday years ago was one of the biggest days of the year. As the population gets older and people die off, the new generation isn’t following the rules like they did,” said Al D’Amato, the day manager at the seafood market.
D’Amato recalls customers even shunning some of the chowders because they have bacon in them. He rarely gets those kinds of questions anymore.
The decline of Lent seafood sales also has been noted at Viking Village in Barnegat Light.
“I don’t think it’s as big as it used to be. Our sales are better because of Lent, a little bit, but it’s not the high-end stuff,” said Viking Village Manager Ernie Panecek.
One reason is because seafood has become a specialty item these days. For centuries, it was a cheap alternative to beef, pork, chicken and other meats. Buying something that is as expensive as sirloin just doesn’t seem like a sacrifice.
“It’s become more of a specialty item than a Lent item,” Panecek said.
Still, Panecek said the tradition is alive and some take advantage of the market. He said he gets Lent orders from as far away as Canada.
“McDonald’s has a special this time of year. Buy one fish sandwich and get one free. They have it every year during Lent,” Panecek said.
The church itself could be one reason for the decline in observing penance. Older Catholics remember when they were told not to eat meat on Fridays all year long.
“As a Catholic school girl, I remember one girl eating a hot dog on a Friday and I was very upset about that. We never ate meat on Friday,” said Margaret Reyes, 70, of North Cape May, who was shopping at the Lobster House.
Reyes bought flounder and salmon, but admitted she no longer strictly follows the observance. If she is eating at a restaurant on a Friday and wants meat, she orders it.
“You don’t feel you’re going to hell if you eat meat on a Friday,” Reyes said.
Rocky Introcaso, of Sea Isle City and Collingswood, said Pope Paul VI loosened the rules in the 1960s because “people were bitching about them.” Introcaso said his wife still eats fish sticks and tuna fish on Fridays, but he admitted he recently got yelled at for eating chicken.
His daughter, Juliet Introcaso, of Maine, likes the tradition.
“For 40 days, you give something up. It’s a sacrifice you offer to God because he sacrificed for us,” she said.
Pope Paul VI did loosen the rules in 1966, but there are still rules in place, noted the Rev. Francis Danella, of Our Lady Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church in Cape May. Danella supplied a written copy of what is expected during Lent, including:
Catholics between 18 and 59 are obligated to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
All Catholics 14 and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent.
Abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, milk products or condiments made of animal fat.
Some are excused due to sickness or other reasons.
The reforms by Pope Paul VI on the practice of penance were incorporated into the Code of Canon Law in 1983. The flock was also reminded at that time that there are other ways of doing penance, including prayer, acts of self denial, charity work, praying, teaching the illiterate to read, helping the sick, working at a soup kitchen and others. Parishioners were told these things can be more meaningful than not eating meat on Fridays.
An individual diocese can also make exceptions.
“If St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday we get a dispensation for that,” said North Cape May resident Joanne McErlane, who prays at Our Lady Star of the Sea in the Camden Diocese.
That dispensation allows the traditional corned-beef dinner.
Her husband, Charlie McErlane, noted he is over 59, so he is allowed to eat meat.
“I have an option, but I choose not to eat meat on Friday. I do Lent. I have an 85-year-old uncle who has never eaten meat on a Friday,” he said.
Danella said fasting is another obligation spelled out in both the Old Testament and New Testament. Fasting is not complete abstinence of eating, but having only one full meal during the day. That meal often features fish as the entree.
Danella said Catholics who are able are expected to follow the rules, and he said most do.
“I’d say they follow it. Our parishioners are very faithful,” Danella said.
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