Rules and Some Guidelines for Fasting

by Father Karl Claver
September 20, 2013

Our Blessed Lord Himself sanctioned fasting by fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert; and though He would not impose it on the world by an express commandment, Our Lord showed plainly enough, by His own example, that fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the Old Testament and Law, was also to be practiced by the children of the New Testament and Law. Christ said in St. Matthew’s Gospel “But the days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast” (Mt. 9:15).

Our Savior Jesus Christ enjoined and prescribed rules for fasting. “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so you will not be seen by men to be fasting” (Matt 6:17). The Apostles fasted before engaging in sacred functions. “They ministered to the Lord and fasted. When they had appointed priests for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they commended them to the Lord” (Acts 14:22).

The Catholic Church has always prescribed fasting to the faithful at stated seasons throughout the year, and particularly during Lent. A Catholic priest is always fasting when he offers Mass, and breaks his fast only after he says Mass. When bishops ordain priests, they are always fasting as well, as are the candidates for ordination.

The Protestants have no laws prescribing fasting even though some may fast because of private devotion. Mainly the Protestants mock and ridicule the idea of fasting. The Eastern rite Churches, as well as some strict Jews and Moslems also practice fasting. The second commandment of the Church is “to fast and abstain on the days appointed”.

A fast day is a day on which only one full meal is allowed. In the morning and in the evening some food is allowed and the quantity and quality of which are determined by approved local custom. The one full meal may be taken either at noon or in the evening. Only at one meal may meat be taken, but both fish and meat may be taken at the same meal. This law is from 1941.

Fasting was a practice in the early Church: “Set apart for me Saul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them. Then having fasted and prayed, and laid their hands of them, they let them go” (Acts 13:2-3). Eating between meals is forbidden; drink that is not nourishing is permitted — wine, soda, tea, lemonade, black coffee, ices (from frozen water) are permitted.

All baptized persons between the ages of 21 and 59 years are obliged to observe the fast days of the Church, unless they are excused or dispensed. Priests have the power of dispensing in particular cases from fast or abstinence, or both, individuals as well as families. Persons excused from fasting must, however, observe abstinence unless they have also been excused from abstinence.

Those of weak health, the sick, the convalescent, nursing women, the very poor, and those engaged in hard (servile) work are excused from fasting. One in doubt as to his duties should consult his pastor or confessor. Young people below 21 years of age have not finished growing and need more than one full meal daily. Those who have passed their 59th year are often weak and have need of more than one full meal. The very poor have to work hard and need more than one full meal to be able to do their duties. Among those who are dispensed on account of hard work are teachers, nurses, and magistrates.

The Church commands us to fast in order that we may control the desires of the flesh, raise our minds more freely to God, and make satisfaction for sin. “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after teaching to others, I myself should be rejected” (1 Cor. 9:27). The Church does not command fasting because she considers meat and other foods are evil in themselves. We merely deny ourselves for the glory of God and the good of our souls.

A good Catholic will be careful to observe the laws of fasting. One who cannot fast, should do some other penance. The 40 days fast observed during Lent is in imitation of Our Lord who fasted forty days in the desert.

Throughout the centuries the severity and details of the Lenten fast have changed a great deal, basically by becoming more relaxed. For a while, in the Middle Ages, it was forbidden to eat any eggs, milk, or cheese during Lent, but this practice slowly changed, and dairy products were allowed.

By fasting we can best induce in ourselves a proper contrition for our sins. Fasting is pleasing to God only when we also refrain from sin and engage in good works. Even from merely natural motives, fasting, far from ruining the health as some people claim, on the contrary, is a preservation of health. Reputable physicians will bear this fact out, and it is common knowledge that those who fast live longer lives than those who are always eating.

Fasting must not be carried to excess, to the injury of our health. Our duty to conserve our health is a law of God and of nature, and is over and above the law of the Church. Where the two conflict, the first prevails.

Up until the 1960’s the fast days were:

A. The Ember days. These are 12 in number, being 3 per season, namely the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays after: the first Sunday of Lent, Pentecost, September 14 and December 13.

B. All days of Lent, except Sundays and up to noon on Holy Saturday.

C. The Vigils of Pentecost, the Assumption, All Saints and Christmas.

Since Vatican II, the only two days we are obligated to fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Another type of “fasting” is fasting before receiving Holy Communion. Our English word “breakfast” means breaking the “Eucharistic” fast. Up until 1950, all Catholics were to fast from midnight on, no food or drink, only water. If Mass was in the afternoon (after 4 o’clock) then the requirement was three hours fasting from food and one hour fasting from liquid. After 1950, the law became 3 hours of fasting from food and one hour from liquids. After Vatican II, the fasting was reduced to one hour before Communion time for both food and liquid. Those who are ill, either in their homes or in the hospital, may receive Holy Communion at any time.

The Council of Trent said the body is to be mortified and the sensual appetites to be repressed by fasting. The Council goes on to say “prayer is united with fasting and alms deeds. Fasting is most intimately connected with prayer. For the mind of one who is filled with food and drink is so borne down as not to be able to raise itself to the contemplation of God, or even to understand what prayer means. Fasting was appointed by God to aid man in the attainment of salvation. The stains of our own lives we wash away by fasting.”

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