A common contemporary misunderstanding among Catholics is the belief that days of penance passed away with the Second Vatican Council. By no means! Lent remains the most familiar period of penance for sin, but so, too, do Fridays throughout the year. The practice of the Church changed only regarding what specifically is given up as a penance. Whereas, in the past meat was always to be given up on Fridays, today, either meat or something else may be given up; or else, one may do a charitable or spiritual work of some type. Regardless, some act of penance, chosen by the individual, must be offered on Fridays throughout the year. For Friday remains a day of penance every bit as much as it was in the past.
For those to whom this is surprising news, I’ve collected a few authoritative statements on the subject. At the very bottom is also a link to an explanation of the changes in the Church’s penitential practice published by the American bishops in 1966.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1438:
The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).
From the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church #301:
What forms does penance take in the Christian life?
Penance can be expressed in many and various ways but above all in fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. These and many other forms of penance can be practiced in the daily life of a Christian, particularly during the time of Lent and on the penitential day of Friday.
From the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.
Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence: