It has become fashionable in the last decades to question the many small ways of the Catholics. People wonder whether it makes sense not to eat meat on a Friday, or to make the sign of the Cross when seeing a church or a crucifix, or to say an Hail Mary whenever we see a crippled man, or an invalid.
But the fact is, you build a solid edifice out of many small bricks. The single brick in itself might not be so terribly meaningful in your life, but it is an effective way to remind yourself who you are, who you want to be, where do you want your life to go.
Let us take Friday abstinence, and divorce. When the obligation of Friday abstinence was generally observed, I am sure there weren’t many Catholics – even in Protestant countries, which allowed such things – who divorced and remarried. There weren’t, because Catholics were constantly reminded of their duties as Catholics in the smaller things, and this obligation was even enforced. This created both an internal brake and a huge external pressure not to contravene to the duties of a Catholic in the big societal questions, like divorce. Also for this reason, I think, the wilful and deliberate refusal to observe Friday abstinence was rightly considered a mortal sin: then when one deliberately refuses to comply with his obligations, and be that in something he considers of small relevance, a revolt in already in place and divorce and concubinage cannot be very far away.
Our wise ancestors knew this, and a sound tradition of respect in small things (there were many, then; for example, even I remember the time when the children were supposed to say “good morning” to their elders without waiting for them to do so) took care that people grew up with a rather straight spine in the bigger one.
Obviously this is no guarantee, and I could tell you of the southern Italian woman living in London always making such a fuss that she renounced sweets during Lent, and who subsequently went to live more uxorio with the first man she could put her hands on. But on the whole, I think it’s fair to say being scrupulous in small things will greatly help one to avoid trouble in bigger ones, and when the societal pressure is added – which was, alas, not the case for the London woman – things will be even easier.
For this reason, I can only recommend Friday abstinence – as usual Friday penance, or in addition to it – even for those living in countries where the obligation has not been reintroduced. I have the persistent suspicion that the day we die what will have – hopefully – saved us will have been not our attempts at heroic efforts, but the way we have trained ourselves to live in the right way by many little habits.
A Hail Mary for the poor chap when you see a crippled man doesn’t take much time, and some basic fridge planning for the Friday will soon be mastered. A sign of the cross reminds you of where you want to be heading when the time comes, and the habit of at least an “eternal rest” a day will count for more than something on that day. But most of all, if you do that the constant reminder of the Catholic Faith of which you are part will make it much easier to stay within the straight and narrow when temptation comes, and your friends give you ill advice.