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Roses are red, Catholics are blue – because Valentine's Day is Ash Wednesday

It hasn't happened, scholars point out, since 1945.

It is sending shock waves through Buffalo's Catholic community.

For the first time in 73 years, Ash Wednesday – a solemn occasion that marks the start of Lent – falls on Feb. 14, the ancient feast of St. Valentine.

The Catholic Church has relaxed somewhat since Vatican II in the early 1960s. But the rules of Ash Wednesday remain. One is abstinence, which means meat is forbidden. The other is fasting, which is prescribed only for this day and Good Friday.

We quote the Catholic Education Resource Center: "The fast entails having only one full meal a day which is sufficient to maintain ones strength. Two other meatless meals are allowed, but are to be light and penitential."

There goes that Valentine's Day steak dinner. Lobster hardly qualifies as penitential.

What about all the faithful who give up chocolate, a Valentine's Day staple? Or sugar, or alcohol?

As awareness of the situation dawned, jokes began flying around social media.

"Roses are red, violets are blue – Lent is beginning, no chocolates for you."

"You're dust – but you're such lovable dust."

Could the bishop offer a dispensation, as he has in the past when St. Patrick's Day has fallen on a Lenten Friday? The wishing and hoping among the faithful were such that Bishop Richard Malone felt it necessary to make a statement – and on video, no less:

"People have wondered if a dispensation will be granted. The answer is no," Malone said gently in the video. "It marks the beginning of the Lenten season, a solemn time of prayer and penance for the Catholic Church and for many other Christians."

All that having been said, restaurateur Russell Salvatore said Ash Wednesday has had no impact on Valentine's Day reservations at Russell's Steaks, Chops & More.

"We are completely booked," he said.

Russell's offers seafood and vegetarian options, and diners who skip the steak will find Salvatore not only sympathetic, but empathetic. Though he laughed that he is far from a perfect Catholic, he still personally follows the old year-round abstinence rules. He gives up meat on not only Lenten Fridays, but on all Fridays.

"I eat steak every single night, but not on Friday," he said. "I still don't eat meat on Friday. It's so funny, I had to go to a function last week at the casino, and they were serving meat. They went back into the kitchen and made fish for me. I feel funny eating meat on Friday, I don't know why."

After 68 years as a restaurateur, though, Salvatore knows the business. He expects that most Valentine's Day diners will choose the steak, same as any other year.

"I don't think Ash Wednesday is going to affect the restaurant at all," he said. "So many people eat meat at present."

Mary Beth Coates (News file photo)

Mary Beth Coates, the diocese's director of lifelong faith formation, thinks he is right.

"We're in a society where things are less black and white," she reasoned. "Some people may in their own mind say, 'I'll have the steak today but sacrifice on another day.' It's a little misdirected or misguided, but we are captains of our own ship in our society. People are very individualistic. We tend to think that making the rules up as I go is OK."

Catholics who seek to follow the rules, she said, do have options. It's best to get them straight now. This situation will arise again in 2024, and again in 2029.

Bishop Malone suggested celebrating Valentine's Day on the day before Ash Wednesday – that would be Mardi Gras.

Or you could celebrate on the day after Ash Wednesday. While it's still Lent, it's a far less solemn day.

Perhaps the best idea of all, Coates suggested, is to celebrate Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday simultaneously.

"A romantic vegan meal never hurt anyone," she laughed.

"I think we can make Ash Wednesday a special day, balancing romantic love with our love for our family and friends. It doesn't have to be all the trimmings and fanciness. Mark the day with prayer, go to church, go to a prayer service, receive the outward sign of faith, and gather with those we love around the table. A simple meal can be the way to connect with others."

She offered a word of comfort, that Lent – which comes from a medieval word for spring – is a time of renewal.

"The thing I hope we don't do is grumble, to complain that the church has ruined Valentine's Day. There's joy in Ash Wednesday. There's joy in Lent. It's not just the purging the souls of our sins, though there's an element of that. I don't want us to be mad that the church has ruined Valentine's Day.

"Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday can coincide. The thing is to be creative."

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