Fasting and Abstinence
Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil.
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was
Matthew 17:17-20: And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him, and
the child was cured from that hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly,
and said: Why could not we cast him out? Jesus said to them: Because of your
unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard
seed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence hither, and it shall
remove: and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast
out but by prayer and fasting.
In the time of
Christ's Incarnation, practitioners of the Old Testament religion fasted
or abstained on Mondays and Thursdays, but Christians opted to take Wednesdays
(the day Our Lord was betrayed) and Fridays (the day Our Lord was crucified)
as their penitential days.
Wednesdays and Fridays are still days of penance in most Eastern Catholic
Churches (and among the Orthodox), but in the Roman Church, only Fridays,
as memorials to the day our Lord was crucified, remain as weekly penitential
days on which abstinence from meat and other forms of penance are expected
as the norm. 1 From the 1983 Code of
Can. 1249 All Christ's
faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance.
However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice
of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are
in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of
piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations
more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which
the following canons prescribe.
Can. 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each
Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by
the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity
should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash
Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth
year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until
the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to
ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law
of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
Can. 1253 The Episcopal Conference can determine more particular ways in
which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or
fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance,
especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
Check with your
local Bishops to see what you are bound to in your area. (Most traditional
Catholics keep the Friday abstinence whether bound to by their local Bishops
Other penitential days are listed in the table below. In this table, I give
the fasting and abstinence practices for those who want to keep the older
practices given for the Universal Church for use with the traditional calendar
as it was in 1962. For informational purposes, I also give the requirements
for those who follow the Novus Ordo calendar and the 1983 Code of Canon
Note that if any of the Fasting and/or Abstinence Days falls on a Sunday
or a first class Feast outside of Lent, the requirements (except for the
Eucharistic Fast) are totally abrogated. Those who need to be excused from
the obligations of fasting and abstaining for medical reasons (pregnancy,
the demands of extraordinarily hard labor, hypoglycemia, etc.) should speak
with their priests for a dispensation. True charity trumps all law, and law
exists to serve true charity!
In the Latin Church,
abstinence means refraining from eating the meat from mammals or fowl, and
soup or gravy made from them. Fish is allowed, hence Fridays are known as
"Fish Fridays." Traditionally, the laws of abstinence apply to all aged 7
and over, but the new Code of Canon Law applies it to all who have completed
their 14th year.
Meat and soup or
gravy made from meat may be eaten once a day at the principle meal.
Fasting is the
taking of only one full meal (which may include meat) and two smaller, meatless
meals that don't equal the large one meal. No eating between meals is allowed,
but water, milk tea, cofee, and juices are OK. Meat is allowed at one meal
(assuming abstience isn't also expected on a given day). Traditionally, everyone
over 21 years of age and under 59 years of age is bound to observe the law
of fast; but the present Code of Canon Law sets the ages of 18 and 59 as
the Eucharist (the "Eucharistic Fast")
Traditional: nothing but water and medicines for three hours. The even older practice
is to fast for 12 hours.
|1983 Code: nothing but water and medicines for 1 hour
Traditional: Abstain. American Catholics have a dispensation, from Pope Pius XII,
to refrain from abstinence on the Friday following Thanksgiving
|1983 Code: To abstain is the universal law. Check with your local Bishops to learn
what you are bound to.
Traditional: Abstain and Fast
|1983 Code: Abstain and Fast
Saturdays of Lent
|Traditional: Abstain and fast
|1983 Code: Abstain on Fridays (not Saturdays), even if you don't abstain on all
|Traditional: Abstain and Fast
|1983 Code: Abstain and Fast
To follow the
traditional path, it might be easier to follow through on these disciplines
if one just decides to fast and abstain on all the days mentioned.
Remembering simply to "eat no more than one regular meatless meal and two
smaller meatless meals that don't equal the larger meal on all the days marked
on my calendar -- and no snacking!" is a lot easier than trying to memorize
Note that in following these disciplines designed to make one mindful of
Christ's sacrifice, to put the world into perspective, and to discipline
the body, true charity trumps every other law; Catholics are not
Pharisees. In other words, if you are asked to a sit-down dinner at a
Protestant's house on Friday, and the host, unaware of Catholic practices,
has worked hard to prepare a huge roast beef, eat the beef and shut up (unless
you believe this person, upon learning of the discipline, would, say, see
your having eaten the meat as a sign of Catholic weakness or hypocrisy and
it would cause scandal or something. In other words, weigh the situation and show the Love of Christ).
This same charity applies to yourself: if you truly forget that it's
"Fish Friday" and you find yourself eating a big, juicy steak, stop eating
the steak and don't beat yourself up over what you've already eaten. If the will isn't involved, there is no culpability (though one should pay
better attention next week!).
Why should we fast?
We fast for many
reasons. Even if there were no other reason to fast, we fast out of obedience:
Our Lord and His Apostles tell us to. We also fast to discipline the body
so that we can focus more intently on the spiritual. And we fast to do penance.
This last reason is described well by Pope Clement XIII in his "Appetente
Sacro," written in 1759. In this document, he exhorts his Bishops to explain
to their flocks the reasons for fasting:
You will begin
most appropriately, and with hope of the greatest profit, to recall men to
the observance of the holy law of fasting, if you teach the people this:
penance for the Christian man is not satisfied by withdrawing from sin, by
detesting a past life badly lived, or by the sacramental confession of these
same sins. Rather, penance also demands that we satisfy divine justice with
fasting, almsgiving, prayer, and other works of the spiritual life. Every
wrongdoing -- be it large or small -- is fittingly punished, either by the
penitent or by a vengeful God. Therefore we cannot avoid God's punishment
in any other way than by punishing ourselves. If this teaching is constantly
implanted in the minds of the faithful, and if they drink deeply of it, there
will be very little cause to fear that those who have discarded their degraded
habits and washed their sins clean through sacramental confession would not
want to expiate the same sins through fasting, to eliminate the concupiscence
of the flesh. Besides, consider the man who is convinced that he repents
of his sins more firmly when he toes not allow himself to go unpunished.
That man, already consumed with the love of penance, will rejoice during
the season of Lent and on certain other days, when the Church declares that
the faithful should fast and gives them the opportunity to bring forth worthy
fruits of penance.
The Proper attitude when fasting
St. John Chrysostom,
in this excerpt from Homily III of his "Homilies on the Statues," summed
it up well:
7. ...We have this
fast too as an ally, and as an assistant in this good intercession. Therefore,
as when the winter is over and the summer is appearing, the sailor draws
his vessel to the deep; and the soldier burnishes his arms, and makes ready
his steed for the battle; and the husbandman sharpens his sickle; and the
traveller boldly undertakes a long journey, and the wrestler strips and bares
himself for the contest. So too, when the fast makes its appearance, like
a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons; and as
husbandmen let us sharpen our sickle; and as sailors let us order our thoughts
against the waves of extravagant desires; and as travellers let us set out
on the journey towards heaven; and as wrestlers let us strip for the contest.
For the believer is at once a husbandman, and a sailor, and a soldier, a
wrestler, and a traveller. Hence St. Paul saith, "We wrestle not against
flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers. Put on therefore
the whole armour of God." Hast thou observed the wrestler? Hast thou observed
the soldier? If thou art a wrestler, it is necessary for thee to engage in
the conflict naked. If a soldier, it behoves thee to stand in the battle
line armed at all points. How then are both these things possible, to be
naked, and yet not naked; to be clothed, and yet not clothed! How? I will
tell thee. Divest thyself of worldly business, and thou hast become a wrestler.
Put on the spiritual armour, and thou hast become a soldier. Strip thyself
of worldly cares, for the season is one of wrestling. Clothe thyself with
the spiritual armour, for we have a heavy warfare to wage with demons. Therefore
also it is needful we should be naked, so as to offer nothing that the devil
may take hold of, while he is wrestling with us; and to be fully armed at
all points, so as on no side to receive a deadly blow. Cultivate thy soul.
Cut away the thorns. Sow the word of godliness. Propagate and nurse with
much care the fair plants of divine wisdom, and thou hast become a husbandman.
And Paul will say to thee, "The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker
of the fruits. He too himself practised this art. Therefore writing to the
Corinthians, he said, "I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the
increase." Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony--sharpen
it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged
and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how mayest thou
be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into
subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony
is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the
tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou
hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor
in all these things.
8. I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real
fasting; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins too. For the
nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice
it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. "For the wrestler," it
is said, "is not crowned unless he strive lawfully." To the end then, that
when we have gone through the labour of fasting, we forfeit not the crown
of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary
to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, but afterwards
when down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting. The Publican fasted
not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted; in order
that thou mayest learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties
follow with it. The Ninevites fasted, and won the favour of God. The Jews
fasted too, and profited nothing, nay they departed with blame. Since then
the danger in fasting is so great to those who do not know how they ought
to fast, we should learn the laws of this exercise, in order that we may
not "run uncertainly," nor "beat the air," nor while we are fighting contend
with a shadow. Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine, though it be never
so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskillfulness of
him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when
it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the temperament
of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of
the year; and the corresponding diet; as well as varous other particulars;
any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named.
Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part,
much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal
the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular
with the utmost accuracy.
11. I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that
we may honour fasting; for the honour of fasting consists not in abstinence
from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits
his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages
it. Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works! Is it said by what
kind of works? If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him! If thou seest
an enemy, be reconciled to him! If thou seest a friend gaining honour, envy
him not! If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth
only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all
the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine
and avarice. Let the feet fast, but ceasing from running to the unlawful
spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely
upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties.
For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or
forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but
if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things
the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with
the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not
upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting
of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies.
"Thou shalt not receive a false report," it says.
1 During Embertides,
the traditional practice is to revert to the older pattern of abstaining
and fasting on Wednesdays in addition to Fridays. Saturdays are added, too,
during these times.