Of faith and fish

  • Written by Maureen Pratt, Catholic News Service
  • Published in Commentary
Tuna fish sandwich. Photo: David Lifson, CC via Flickr* Tuna fish sandwich. Photo: David Lifson, CC via Flickr*

For Catholics and other Christians who observe meatless Fridays, fish figure prominently, and this makes me (pardon the pun) happy as a clam. But I understand that some people are not as enthusiastic as I am about fish. The smell might be off-putting, the texture "slimy."

There have been news stories about fish high in mercury and other contaminants. Fish can be a challenge to cook. And for some parents, it can take hours of coaxing and bargaining to get a finicky child to take even one little bit of what might even remotely resemble a beloved cartoon character from "under the sea."

Yet, we can develop a greater appreciation for fish by linking our Lenten practice more consciously with our faith and our desire to live well, and we can teach these lessons to the next generation, instilling a deeper sense of meaning and community.

The Gospels contain many references to fish: Jesus called more than one fisherman disciple directly from the sea (Lk 5:1-11) and performed an epic miracle (Lk 9:10-17) starting with two fish that ultimately fed 5,000.

With fish a staple in the common diet in Jesus' time, the smell and plump freshness of it would have been almost daily experiences for Our Lord and his disciples. When we smell, touch or taste fish, we are brought tangibly closer to our forebears in faith (if we omit the thick breading and sauces!).

Also, in Jesus' time, the act of fishing involved groups of people, often families (as with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were called by Jesus at the same time as Simon Peter). At our family meals or parish fish fries during Lent, we evoke something of this communal gathering around God's gift from the sea.

The properties of fish feed another important part of us -- our bodies -- providing us with essential nutrients. Many fish, including salmon, tuna and lake trout, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These "good," unsaturated fatty acids may play a role in reducing inflammation that can lead to heart disease.

Substituting fish as protein instead of red meat once or twice a week also helps us avoid meat's unhealthy, saturated fats, which can contribute to heart disease and obesity.

How we prepare fish will impact its health benefits. Baked is better than fried, and those concealing, buttery sauces don't help! But today there are many resources for healthful recipes online and abundant herbal and other preparations in stores to play with so that the result is delicious and nutritious.

Or, to tie in with our faith, keeping fish preparation very simple can contribute to the overall simplicity of Lent.

According to the Mayo Clinic's website, larger, predatory fish such as shark, king mackerel and swordfish can contain high levels of mercury. The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and of Agriculture's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that women who are pregnant or who wish to become pregnant and small children avoid seafood that might have high methyl mercury.

Anyone who has concerns about eating seafood should consult with his or her doctor or a qualified nutritionist.

As a child, one of my favorite lunches was the simple (and smelly) tuna sandwich. Summer vacations spent lakeside, catching perch or other wriggly, scaly creatures, and eating them later, are some of my fondest childhood memories.

Now, I am blessed to live not far from a wonderful seafood store, where the catch is fresh and abundant and the variety invites culinary creativity throughout the year and especially during Lent. Not exactly like throwing a net over the side of a creaky boat in the Sea of Galilee, but close enough to evoke thoughts of faith and food -- nourishment for body and soul!

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