“Lenten Fish Fries are as much a part of our culture as losing sports teams,” said the CEO of the Cleveland-area Cleats Restaurants Corporation, Tim Higdon. On non-Lenten Fridays, Higdon reports that his restaurants sell an average of 20 fish fries, but during Lent, the average soars to 250. Lenten fish fries are on the rise in both restaurants and non-profit venues, and are a still valued and entrenched aspect of the local culture. This popularity continues in spite of the steep decline in Mass attendance in recent years in the Diocese of Cleveland, and many other Midwestern dioceses.
The average weekly Mass attendance of registered parishioners teeters around 25%, which propelled Bishop Lennon to close or merge a whopping 40 parishes in and around 2009. With the shedding of Catholic culture in so many ways, what has caused Lenten fish fries to live on with vengeance? How can this, if even tiny, aspect of culture and family tradition be used to bring about a revitalization to Catholic life in areas in which it is suffering?
Fish fries have been a part of Midwestern culture since the influx of European immigrants began in the late 19th century. They grew exponentially during the Prohibition years, when “family-friendly” activities were born, and have continued to thrive in to modern day. Many churches and restaurants have continued this tradition both during Lent as well as throughout the year. Church pastors often delegate fish fry duties to the Knights of Columbus, who passionately execute the fish fries, and raise money for various causes: crisis pregnancy centers, food banks, scholarship funds, and foreign missions, to name a few.
The tradition is often passed down from generation to generation, and many Knights recall their own fathers’ past responsibilities and look forward to one day pass the fish fry torch onto their children. “We have been actively doing a Lenten fish fry since the 1980s,” said Braham, Minnesota Knight of Columbus, John Shockman. “It started as just a parish function but then developed into a complete community-wide understanding. At the beginning, we served a few families but now serve 1,000-plus meals by the time we are finished.” Shockman’s daughter Maria, 22, recalls her involvement with the parish fish fry. “I have volunteered since I can remember… We were always one of the first families there and one of the last to leave. It was a way for me to see my friends but to also stay active in my Church, being able to help out in my community, and see what absolute joy our parish brought to everyone in my town!”
The basis of parish fish fries as well as fish fries in many restaurants is family. The best-known fish fry restaurants are family-owned establishments, and parish fish fries are always family-affairs. What keeps people coming back is a sense of community both within their families as well as with the greater parish or municipality. However, the bridge is left open. A member of a Midwestern parish said, that while the fish fry is indeed held within the parish building and allows non-church-goers to become familiar with the church building and parishioners, there is not any overt invitation or encouragement to join the parish or become involved in any way. John Shockman puts a positive spin on this phenomenon. “It gives them, the ‘non-practicing’ Catholics, a chance to reconnect or stay somewhat on a local level connected to a Church they haven’t seen as much as they would like. Fish fries perhaps make them feel connected in some way.”
With Pope Francis’ call to evangelization constantly being reiterated, it is difficult to fathom that any parish event, especially a fish fry, would be an exception to this call. His latest encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium states clearly,
We cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of these are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face… All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.
The pastor of St. John Neumann Church in Strongsville, OH, Father Bob Kraig, would agree. He said he believes the joy and celebratory nature of the workers and their motivation to help others in need is what keeps so many families coming back year after year. While fellowship alone certainly does have its merits, active evangelization, that is building relationships and sharing the joy of the faith, has great potential in fish fries.
The fact that fish fries are a family event can easily be segued in to an evangelization opportunity. The New Evangelization, which has become a popular Catholic buzz phrase, is largely about building relationships. Many parishes hold various groups and activities, including: Bible studies, women’s groups, men’s groups, youth groups, CCD, CYO, and the so forth. While these groups certainly have merit, they fail to unify the family as whole and often fail to evangelize, that is, lead families in to a relationship with Jesus Christ. The fact that many families cling to meatless Lenten Fridays can be used as a means to draw them back in by building relationships amongst families, and showing through witness that there is great joy derived from being fully in communion with Christ and His Church.
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Family tradition runs deep within Midwestern fish fries and Midwestern culture in general. Even if a family has fallen away from the Faith, they often cling to the tradition of meatless Fridays and are known to frequent parish or restaurant fish fries. The allegiance to tradition within Midwestern culture is part of what can bring those who abstain from meat simply out of mechanics back to the Faith, channeling the same passion of the annual wish for a Cleveland Indians American League championship or a Browns Super Bowl.
A parish fish fry can be used as a tool for families to reclaim their Catholic faith by continuing to build relationships within the community. While it may only be the first small step in the journey toward a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ, it can draw people in, building disciples and “inviting others to a delicious banquet” (of cod and perch) that may hopefully lead them to a return to the Eucharistic banquet.