Once, I was contacted by someone who had just had a relative die.
The family would be getting together that Friday, and, as most of the family was not Catholic, they did not observe abstinence from meat during Lent.
Furthermore, this person knew for a fact that a meat dish was being prepared for the family gathering.
What are this person’s options?
Option 1: Don’t eat the dish
There are several variants here:
a) Eat other stuff provided at the event. It may be the case that there will be enough else there to eat that you can avoid the meat and still have enough to eat.
b) You could also eat before or after the gathering.
c) Or you could bring your own food.
d) Or you could fast.
e) Or you could request that an alternate dish be provided.
All of these are legitimate options. Some might even be inclined to treat this as an evangelistic opportunity with the family by not hiding their Catholic faith and practice.
On the other hand, the fact that it’s a family gathering with non-Catholic grieving people—people who are presumably grieving the death of a non-Catholic family member—complicates things.
The family is likely under a lot of strain already, and the death of a family member can frequently result in family fights, often over tiny things that are irrational to fight about. Some of these fights turn into longstanding grudges.
It thus might not be the time to “make a statement”—evangelistic or otherwise. There may be other, better times for that.
Whether any of the variations on Option 1 are advisable will depend on the nature of the family and its members. It involves a judgment call that an outsider can’t make (and which would be foolish for an outsider to try to make, given how delicate—or even explosive—postmortem family gatherings can be).
(NOTE TO THE READER: If you’ve been to family gatherings following the deaths of a number of loved ones and you’ve never witnessed a fight at one, say a prayer of thanks for having an unusually even-tempered family.)
Suppose none of the variants for Option 1 is preferable in this case. Is there an Option 2?
There is . . .
Option 2: Eat the dish
The simple way to handle the situation is call your pastor in advance, explain the situation, and ask to be dispensed from the requirement of abstinence from meat.
Pastors have the ability to dispense this—or to commute the obligation into some other pious work.
According to the Code of Canon Law:
Without prejudice to the right of diocesan bishops mentioned in can. 87, for a just cause and according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop, a pastor can grant in individual cases a dispensation from the obligation of observing a feast day or a day of penance or can grant a commutation of the obligation into other pious works. A superior of a religious institute or society of apostolic life, if they are clerical and of pontifical right, can also do this in regard to his own subjects and others living in the house day and night (can. 1245).
The Church understands there are reasons why someone might need an exception from the ordinary requirements of a day of penance, which is why it has this provision in canon law.
Bear in mind that it is the pastor of the parish, not an assistant pastor, who has the ability to do this.