Carnival: Refashioning a Latin American Tradition – by Dr. Marina A. Herrera

Many Latin American cities and towns spend the months leading up to Lent busily preparing the carnival celebrations that, for many observers and participants alike, are a spectacle of excesses of every type. Yet Carnival time, in its beginnings, had religious connections.

Carnem-levare, meaning “abandoning meat”, is the Latin root of the word carnival. And there is its link to the Catholic calendar and practices. It may have been only a day of celebration prior to Ash Wednesday, indulging in a more lavish meal before entering a period of fasting and abstinence. It is time for us to recover and refashion the intended meaning of carnival.

For Catholics, Lent has always included abstinence from meat and fasting on Fridays. In fact, prior to Vatican II, the Church called for abstinence from meat every Friday of the year, not because it was a healthy thing to do (along the lines of “meatless Mondays”), but because of its sacrificial value in making us aware that Friday was the day of Jesus’ Death on the Cross for our Salvation.

Our young Catholics, and some not so young, have heard little about the spiritual, physical, social, and ecological value of abstinence and fasting. One might say that these practices give us a home run of benefits, and something we can promote without shyness among the young and our peers. Although not obliged to abstain until the age of 14 or fast until the age of 18, Canon Law is very clear that the duty to practice some form of penance binds us all: “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.” And the duty extends to those outside the age brackets for whom it is a requirement: “…pastors of souls and parents are to take care that minors (my emphasis) not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are also educated in a genuine sense of penance” (Code of Canon Law 1250-1251).

Together with the spiritual value of penance and abstinence, it will be fruitful for young Catholics to understand the wisdom of the Church’s ancient practice in alignment with what our medical and nutritionist communities have more recently discovered about the effects of excess consumption of meat and sugar, two of the traditional omissions from our Lenten menus. Abstinence has social dimensions that should lead us to almsgiving, the other Lenten practice, for the sake of those who suffer hunger and lack many of life’s essentials. While individuals may find it difficult to find ways to channel those alms, Catholic service organizations such as Catholic Relief Services (, Catholic Campaign for Human Development (, and Catholic Charities at home ( have been doing so for years. And equally important at this juncture of our planet’s life is the reduction of our carbon footprint, which can be done in part if the close to 1 billion members of the worldwide Catholic community who may be meat consumers simply lower their consumption of meat (see Laudato Si’ 50).

Let us each consider what we might do to reclaim the intended meaning of carnival, and to truly honor the Church’s practices of fasting and abstinence as practices leading to spiritual growth and change, and as works of justice.

For more visit:
Catholic Resources
2016 Lent and Holy Week

Marina A. Herrera, Ph.D., obtained her degree at Fordham University, taught ecclesiology at Washington Theological Union, Empire State College, and New York Theological Seminary. She has written and given conferences and lectures on Latin American religious history and practices in this country and abroad, and now collaborates with many religious publishers to bring quality materials to Spanish-speakers in the US.

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