Lent is arriving in Pittsburgh and that means fish fry season is upon us.
A mainstay of Catholic culture in Pittsburgh, this is the first fish fry season since the release of the Grand Jury Report in August 2018 describing sexual violence by nearly 100 priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the complicity of Diocesan officials in covering up that abuse.
For decades, fish fries have been important fundraisers for parishes throughout the region, staffed by stalwart volunteers of all ages.
Fish fries have also expanded to fire halls and local restaurants and the sheer volume of events that have cropped up in recent years has led to many media outlets to launch bracket challenges, Facebook groups, and a Google map. You can find fish fries with hipster themes, locally sourced fries, and everything from fish tacos to fish pizza to help meet the Lenten obligation when you tire of a 29-inch piece of fried cod on a hamburger bun.
For the past several years, I’ve featured a blog series called Fish Fry Fridays, essentially my reviews of assorted fish fries throughout the region. I dive into the food quality, portions, and price, but I also consider the accessibility of the venue, the friendliness and welcoming attitudes of the community, any evidence of recycling, and more. Examining the tension between my personal experience of Catholic culture and our shared experiences at the fish fries has been a useful starting point for some of my reviews.
But the whole time I wrote these, I knew about the sexual violence occurring in the Church. I was one of the kids who grew up knowing that most of the priests in our parish (Holy Spirit in West Mifflin) were just terrible. That was proven true when I discovered that the parish was staffed by child predators for at least 23 consecutive years. My friends were preyed upon and still deal with those scars today. I have never been unaware of the magnitude of sexual violence in the Catholic Church or Christianity writ large. It has shaped my life in ways that are difficult and painful to describe.
I read accounts of local parishes struggling to reconcile the realities of the grand jury report and hear very little acknowledgement of how these remaining parishioners were complicit in these events. Instead, people focus on what they will lose — their church buildings might close, their schools might be consolidated, their losses are potentially catastrophic. But very few people take that next step of considering that all of these things were built on a culture that has been skewed toward violence, abuse, and power hoarding for the past several millenia. Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, have violent histories.
In truth, rather than hand-wringing over what this will costs the remaining faithful, all of us who grew up in this violent culture deserve an apology by the adults who failed us as children and young adults. Our lives are the catastrophic loss, not the buildings or stained glass windows or Central Catholic “mafia” connections. Those can all be replicated or replaced. Or, just maybe, left behind as we move toward a culture that protects children and adults from sexual violence.
And as an adult now, I must hold myself accountable for how my Fish Fry Friday reviews feed into the fish fry cultural fetish.
I can hear the eyeballs rolling as people read the phrase “fish fry culture fetish” but I’ve been dreading Lent more this year than in any year of my life.
There are plenty of non-Catholic alternatives. A Presbyterian Church near my home has appropriated this little fundraiser with the glee and zest that would make their “we are leaving the island of Catholicism and taking our buildings/properties/chest of gold with us” forefathers proud. They have gourmet soup. The Elks have banjo club samplers and a full cash bar. There’s a fire hall with a deep fried grilled cheese sandwich and you can’t swing a dead fish without hitting a DIY pierogi option.
I wish some or any of these institutions that fundraise on a concept tied so innately to horrific sexual violence would have the decency to own how that legacy fuels their fundraiser. It could be something as simple as donating a percentage of the proceeds to SNAP (Survivors Networks of Those Abused by Priests) or other survivors’ organizations. It could be programming around sexual violence and child abuse. It could be safe space stickers.
It does not look like “we do good work here so we get a pass on community accountability.”
I used to find the appropriation distasteful and garish. Now I’m grateful because I can indulge my surface skim of Lenten fish fries without having to actually spend time with Catholic people or in churches. My original thought was to retire the reviews and just find something else to do on Friday nights, but I realize that Lent presents me with at least 6 opportunities to explore these questions in great detail as I write a post-grand jury report series. Spoiler Alert: Bishop David Zubick has to resign.
I know that many Catholics are decent people who simply cannot wrap their heads around the magnitude of these crimes. That doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility to do so. I know that people honestly think Christianity can be something that it never has been — an instrument of peace, justice, and communion with a loving God — if we can just try things a little differently. The kids in my home parish know better.
So enjoy your fish sandwiches and pierogies, but before you go out on Friday nights at least read the Grand Jury Report.