O'Leary will enjoy his corned beef on Friday with a clear conscience — thanks to a special dispensation from another Irish-American, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee.
Dolan is among dozens of bishops — from Green Bay, Wis., to Arlington, Va., to Chicago to Boston — granting one-day dispensations from Lenten rules that prohibit Roman Catholics from eating meat on Fridays to observe the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In many cases, the bishops are asking for a similar day of penance in exchange for relaxing the rules this Friday.
Many bishops offered the same deal the last time St. Patrick's Day fell on a Friday during Lent — in 2000. The Archdiocese of New York has always extended a dispensation when the calendar lined up because St. Patrick is the patron saint of the archdiocese, spokesman Joseph Zwilling said.
If Dolan hadn't granted the dispensation, O'Leary, director of Milwaukee's St. Patrick's Day parade, said he would stick to the rules — meaning he wouldn't prepare his corned beef brisket. But with the bishop's blessing, he plans to put a brisket in his slow cooker early Friday morning and slather it with mustard and other condiments come dinner time.
"It is being done in honor of St. Patrick," O'Leary said. "It's not as though I'm having something I would normally have. It's a special thing."
The connection between Ireland and corned beef dates to colonial times in Boston, when meat was imported from Ireland and preserved in salt, said Kevin O'Neill, history professor in the Irish Studies program at Boston College. The result — corned beef — was associated with Ireland.
While eating meat on a Friday in Lent isn't considered a mortal sin — the gravest category — it does take a dispensation for the church to lift the rule. At least 67 of the country's nearly 200 dioceses provide such dispensations, said Rocco Palmo, a Catholic commentator who has been keeping an informal count on his blog "Whispers in the Loggia."
Milwaukee parishioners can take their dispensation elsewhere: In other words, they can eat corned beef if they travel. But people shouldn't come in from other areas — where they haven't received dispensation — just to eat meat, said Kathleen Hohl, spokeswoman for the Milwaukee Archdiocese. People should strive for moderation and not overindulge, she said.
"It's a dispensation. It's meant to be observed in an appropriate way," Hohl said.
Each local bishop has the authority to allow Catholics in his diocese to forgo the traditional abstention of meat on Fridays or other rules of Lent, said Bill Ryan, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Typically, bishops will determine if there's a need, he said, such as having a large Irish population.
Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa, has opted against a dispensation to the 100,000 Catholics in his diocese.
Many parishes moved their St. Patrick's Day celebrations to Thursday or Saturday, said Jim Wharton, spokesman for the Sioux City Diocese. That allows them to go ahead with their Lenten fish fry events — a Friday staple that typically yields money for school or parish projects, he said. Not one Catholic in the diocese has called him wondering why dispensation wasn't granted, he said.
"For the most part, I think people understand it's really why we are who we are as a Catholic family and that's to observe some of the traditions of the church," Wharton said.
In exchange for his corned beef meal, O'Leary said he plans to give up something else, such as chicken wings or beer on a weekend when he's watching sports on television.
"I will deny myself something and pay it back," O'Leary said.
Written by Emily Fredrix