You Can’t Have Your Ash Wednesday and Eat Your Valentine’s Day Steak Dinner, Too (2024)

U.S. bishops say Lenten penance beats sweets with your sweetheart, so celebrate tonight instead.

Can you gorge on chocolate all day and then share a filet mignon Valentine’s Day dinner with that special someone and still keep Ash Wednesday?

No, say U.S. bishops.

Nearly 100 dioceses responded to a survey by the Register asking whether they plan to offer relief from the Catholic Church’s requirements for fasting (one meal, up to two other meals not equaling the full meal) and abstinence (no meat) on the day that kicks off Lent, since this year it falls on Feb. 14, which, of course, is Valentine’s Day.

Every diocese that responded said No.

Some bishops are advising Catholics to celebrate Valentine’s Day on Fat Tuesday, which is English for Mardi Gras.

That includes the head of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, Archbishop Thomas Rodi.

“Since Mobile is where Mardi Gras began, we have our celebrating the day before. Ash Wednesday is the time to get serious,” Archbishop Rodi said through a spokesman.

Liturgical Death Match?

Valentine’s Day is named for the date of death of St. Valentine, an Italian martyr of the third century. He became associated with courtly love around the 14th century, according to Henry Ansgar Kelly’s 1986 academic book Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine, though scholars don’t agree on the details.

Ash Wednesday grew out of the biblical practices associating ashes with penance. In 1091, Pope Urban II ordered the Church in Rome to distribute ashes to the faithful on the Wednesday 46 days before Easter to begin Lent, thus standardizing a practice that had previously been followed elsewhere in Western Europe.

Valentine’s Day is famously associated with cards, candy and romantic encounters between sweethearts. Ash Wednesday is associated with fasting, penance, and, well … ashes. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (from Genesis 3:19) is one of the options a priest has for saying out loud while marking the forehead of a penitent with a black cross.

Something’s got to give. The universal Church — and the U.S. bishops in particular — say Ash Wednesday must prevail because it’s more important.

“Of course, Ash Wednesday is the much higher value and deserves the full measure of our devotion. It inaugurates the solemn season of Lent and challenges us all to renew our commitment to divine love and be reconciled by the grace of the Lord Jesus,” Bishop Richard Henning, head of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, wrote in the diocesan newspaper Rhode Island Catholic.

Yet the Diocese of Alexandria in Louisiana sees the apparent conflict between the two as a teachable moment to bring them together.

“The fact that these holidays fall on the same day gives us the opportunity to explain a church tradition. We have the chance to spread God’s love on a wider scale,” the diocese said in a written statement. “Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are about intentional sacrifice, giving something up so you can learn to better appreciate it. Encourage married couples to give up the extravagance of Valentine’s Day. Instead of romantic dinners, maybe they partake in a service project. Instead of flowers and gifts, maybe they donate to a charity they love.”

The common theme of fasting and romantic love, says the Diocese of Albany, New York, is sacrifice.

“We might summarize all this by saying that the very nature of true love and authentic love is sacrificial. After all, St. Valentine was an early Christian martyr and gave up his life in witness to his faith and love of Christ,” the Diocese of Albany said. “So, perhaps this Valentine’s Day, we might volunteer that evening to help those in need, or to donate the money that we would have spent on a dinner out to some charity or to someone we know who is in need. That way, we can show our love for each other and for God, by showing our love for another, remembering that that ‘another’ is, in fact, Christ …” (emphasis in original).

Why Is Ash Wednesday So Important?

Canon law highlights Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as the chief days of penance in the Church calendar. They are at either end of Lent. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, which ends during the afternoon of Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.

Catholics 14 and older are supposed to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics ages 18 to 59 are supposed to fast from food, which the Church defines as eating no more than one meal plus up to two other meals that do not add up to one ordinary meal.

Why?

Lent is based on the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting, as described in Matthew 4:2 and Luke 4:1-2.

“Fasting is not a quaint devotion, but a powerful gesture to remind ourselves what truly matters and what is merely ephemeral,” Pope Francis said on Ash Wednesday in February 2023.

In March 2014, Pope Francis said: “We must be careful not to practice a formal fast, or one which in truth ‘satisfies’ us because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Fasting makes sense if it questions our security, and if it also leads to some benefit for others, if it helps us to cultivate the style of the Good Samaritan, who bends down to his brother in need and takes care of him.”

Living both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day properly, said Bishop James Tamayo of the Diocese of Laredo, Texas, means following Jesus.

“Jesus freely chose to offer his life and death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and our eternal salvation. Jesus made this tremendous sacrifice out of love for each one of us. Secular society celebrates Valentine's Day as a way of showing our love to someone who expresses their love and kindness to us. What most proper response for us to make on Valentine’s Day than to lovingly fast and abstain in honor of Our Savior Jesus Christ as we begin the Season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2024,” Bishop Tamayo said in a written statement through a spokesman.

St. Patrick’s Day, Yes; St. Valentine’s Day, No

Less than a year ago, as the Register reported in March 2023, about 73% of the bishops in the United States granted relief from the no-meat-on-Fridays-during-Lent rule for St. Patrick’s Day, which fell on a Friday last year. Some bishops required a substitute penitential practice. Some dispensed with the penance altogether.

What’s the difference between the two situations?

There are several. One is that St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday during Lent far more frequently (14 times a century since 1600) than Ash Wednesday falls on St. Valentine’s Day (three times a century). (For this century, the years Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 14 are 2018, 2024 and 2029.)

Another is that Ash Wednesday outranks a Friday during Lent. While neither is a holy day of obligation requiring attendance at Mass, Ash Wednesday is the highest-ranking non-Sunday behind the Paschal Triduum (Holy Thursday-Good Friday-Easter vigil), Christmas, Epiphany and Ascension, and it appears in the second group of liturgical days in order of precedence. (Some bishops even take the position that Ash Wednesday is so exalted that they don’t under canon law have the authority to offer a dispensation from fasting and abstinence on it, though that is disputed.)

By comparison, a Friday during Lent has the status of a weekday during Lent, which appears in the ninth group of liturgical days in order of precedence — still important, but not as important.

Another difference is that St. Patrick’s Day outranks St. Valentine’s Day in the Church calendar. St. Patrick’s Day is an optional memorial in the Church’s universal calendar and a solemnity in Ireland and a feast day in Scotland, and the “Apostle of Ireland” is the patron saint of numerous dioceses and cathedrals in the United States. St. Valentine isn’t the patron of any country or diocese, and Pope Paul VI’s reform of the Roman calendar in 1969 dropped St. Valentine. (Feb. 14 is currently the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.)

Many dioceses contacted by the Register last week said they hadn’t gotten a single request for a Valentine’s Day dispensation for Ash Wednesday this year. St. Patrick’s Day requests — mostly from Irish-Americans — are common.

Bishop Joseph Tyson, who leads the Diocese of Yakima in central Washington state, was one of 93 diocesan bishops in the country who last year offered a no-strings-attached dispensation from the no-meat-on-Friday rule on St. Patrick’s Day, though he suggested that Catholics taking advantage of it instead consider making a donation to a food bank or doing another act of penance or charity.

“Corned beef and cabbage is such a central aspect of St. Patrick, and St. Patrick in the pantheon of the community of saints in the United States is such a big figure — dare I say bigger than St. Valentine — it just seemed to me that it was the right thing to do so they could celebrate appropriately,” Bishop Tyson said in a telephone interview with the Register.

“Now, for Valentine’s Day,” he continued, “I am encouraging: Buy your sweetheart a nice Northwest salmon and asparagus dinner. You can still have red wine. You can still have chocolate, if you haven’t given that up for Lent.”

You Can’t Have Your Ash Wednesday and Eat Your Valentine’s Day Steak Dinner, Too (2024)
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