Practices Left by the Wayside
While the basic core of beliefs has not changed since Revelation (the Word of God delivered by Jesus Christ), some Catholic practices have. Within the tradition of the Church, some customs have been left behind, such as the practice of weekly confession. This is only natural, as the Catholic Church has adapted to the needs of its membership at different times.Practicing Abstinence from Food
Traditionally, Catholics practiced various types of abstinence from food as a penance for sins, and therefore a kind of cleansing, particularly before holy days, but these customs have changed over the years.
One form of abstinence involved having only one full meal per day. Another prescribed the avoidance of meat or meat-based products and flavorings. This practice was reserved for Fridays, in recognition of Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross, and explains why Catholics always ate fish on Fridays. However, it is no longer necessary to abstain from meat on Fridays, although believers may do other forms of penance to commemorate Christ's suffering. In the United States, Catholics still avoid meat on the Fridays during Lent as well as on Ash Wednesday.
At one time, Catholics were required to fast prior to partaking of the Holy Communion (usually from midnight to the following morning, until the Sunday Mass). These fasts are no longer required. Catholics usually abstain from eating one hour prior to communion.A Place Called Limbo
Limbo is a place and a concept that served to allay the fears of parents whose children died before they could be baptized. In the past, Catholics believed that the souls of those who were not baptized could not get access into Heaven and that they therefore ended up in Hell. Catholic parents rushed their babies to the church for Baptism shortly after birth, but some babies still died without receiving Baptism.
Catholics could not accept the idea that God would let innocent babies go to the fires of Hell only because they did not have an opportunity to receive Baptism, and so, they reasoned, babies must go to another place — Limbo (from the Latin for “border”).
No one is really sure where the concept of Limbo came from, but for a long time Catholics were taught about this place — not quite Heaven or Hell, but a third possible eternal location. For a while, theologians discussed whether the infants experienced any kind of pain, but this idea only lasted until the thirteenth century. Catholics then settled on the idea that Limbo is a place where the infant souls dwell in natural bliss, if not exactly the true joy of being in the presence of the Lord. However, Church canon law does not include any mention of Limbo, and so eventually this idea was rejected. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church does not mention it, and the Church has no official position on the concept of any such place or state.
A heretical group named Jansenists once pronounced that unbaptized infants were condemned to burn in Hell. Pope Pius VI condemned this idea with horror in 1794. He taught that a Catholic should think of Limbo as a “middle state.”
One of the most sweeping changes in the Catholic Church, and therefore one not without controversy, has to do with the rituals around the Mass. The changes in conducting Mass were promulgated by Pope Paul VI after Vatican II. The most significant change was that vernacular (that is, the native language of the congregation) was allowed to be used in the conductance of the Mass. When reciting the Nicene Creed and other prayers, the congregation's native tongue ensures their full understanding and that they are able to relate to what they are saying. Although Latin was dropped from most parts of the service, it has not been discarded completely. It remains one of the unifying features of the Church.
Other changes included moving the altar so that it now faces the congregation; decreasing the number of prayers said during Mass; and encouraging parishioners to join in the singing (rather than listening to a choir).Veneration of the Saints
Veneration of the saints has long been an issue both within and outside the Catholic Church. In the days of the early Church, holy men and women who were martyred for their faith gained the respect and veneration of the other Christians. Gradually, this practice threatened to become idolatry, and many ecclesiasts warned that excessive veneration of saints detracted from worship of the Lord.
By the time of the Council of Trent, the Church decided that prayer to saints is acceptable as long as the faithful ask the saints to intercede with God on their behalf and understand that saints do not have divine powers. Furthermore, the Church saw the saints as shining examples of sanctity for the faithful to observe and emulate.
There are thousands of saints, and little is known about many of them. It wasn't until 1171 that the Catholic Church made official the process of canonization of saints and decreed that only the Holy See had the right to determine this sainthood.
In the 1960s, Pope Paul VI undertook a reassessment of saints as part of Vatican II. This reassessment has been broadly misunderstood. It is incorrectly believed by many laypersons that he decanonized saints, including the popular St. Christopher.
What Paul did was to review the saints' feast days, which he felt were crowding the ecclesiastical calendar at the expense of feast days devoted to worship of the Lord. He wanted Catholics to properly refocus their attention and decided that since the Church is universal, the Church should celebrate only universally important saints with official feast days. In 1969, the pope reordered the ecclesiastical calendar, in which fifty-eight obligatory and ninety-two optional saint's days were included, in addition to the more significant figures of Christ and his contemporaries. St. Christopher's feast day was one of the days dropped from the calendar.