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Fasting and Abstinence at Lent: A CNA Explainer

March 1, 2022 Catholic News Agency 1
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Denver, Colo., Mar 1, 2022 / 03:00 am (CNA).

Most Catholics, even those who don’t often go to Mass, know that Lent is a time for Friday Fish Fries and “giving something up.” But many Catholics wonder what exactly the Church requires during Lent, and why.

Here are a few points that might help you have a great Lent this year:

What is Lent?

At the beginning of his public life, Jesus was baptized by his cousin John the Baptist in the Jordan River. John was a prophet and a preacher, and he urged people to be baptized as a sign of their repentance from sin.

After Jesus was baptized, according to the Gospel of Matthew, the Holy Spirit descended upon him “like a dove,” and a voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

People were amazed, but Jesus immediately went away by himself into the desert. There he fasted and prayed, and while he was there, Satan appeared to him three times, tempting him.

Jesus stayed in the desert for 40 days. When he left the desert, he began calling his disciples and apostles, as the mission that led to his crucifixion had begun.

The Church says that Lent is a 40-day period of unity with “the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”

By sacrificing small things, as well as fasting, praying, and giving to charity, Catholics are invited to experience a period of prayer like the one Jesus experienced, and to prepare themselves to resist Satan’s temptation, and fulfill the mission God has given the Church.

Lent comes before Easter, and is a preparation for that feast, which is one of the most important in the Church’s life.

Cool. So, I can’t eat meat then?

During the Fridays of Lent, Roman Catholics are to abstain from meat, in union with the fasting of Jesus, and in memory of Christ’s death on a Friday. Fish is not considered meat for these purposes, nor are some other kinds of aquatic creatures in certain places- alligator is ok in Louisiana, and, curiously, muskrat is allowed in some parts of Michigan!

Generally speaking, products derived from animals, like broth or gelatin, are not considered to violate the rule of abstinence- this is because the point is to make a spiritual sacrifice in union with Christ, not to become consumed with parsing ingredient lists for animal byproducts.

The point, really, is for the Fridays of Lent to be days of simplicity and even a bit of hunger- while seafood is allowed, a butter-soaked lobster probably misses that point.

All Catholics age 14 and older are expected to abstain from meat, although those who can’t do so for health reasons, along with pregnant and nursing women, are obviously exempted.

I have heard the Fridays of Lent referred to as “days of abstinence.” Usually when the Church talks about abstinence…

This is a surprisingly common question. When the Church talks about abstinence in this context, she is referring to abstention from eating meat.

What about fasting? When do I fast? And what do I do?

The two required days of fasting during Lent are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. These are also days of abstinence. All Roman Catholics who are 18 but not yet 59 are required to both fast and abstain from meat on those days.

In 1966, Pope St. Paul VI said that the Church’s “law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening.” This is often taken to mean that the most Catholics should eat on a day of fasting is one normal sized meal–with no meat–and two smaller snacks.

Those who wish for a more intense fast are not prohibited from more fasting, but this is generally a good idea to discuss with a spiritual director, confessor, or pastor.

Wait– so I’m 60, and my grandson is 17. Does that mean we don’t have to fast?

That’s correct. You are not required by canon law to fast- though you are still bound by the law of abstinence. This means that whether to fast should be a matter for your discernment, perhaps with some guidance from your pastor or confessor.

What about candy? Should I give that up? What’s that about anyway? I don’t even like candy.

I like candy. But here a few thoughts on what to do for a fruitful Lent:

The season of Lent emphasizes three things: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Prayer means prayer, that’s pretty simple. Almsgiving refers to acts of charity or generosity. And fasting refers to going without something, especially something on which we’ve become dependent, something we think we can’t live without, or something that distracts us from God.

Actually, these three themes are related directly to the three temptations Christ faced in the desert, and you can read about that here.  

But for a fruitful Lent, it is helpful to decide on one practice for each of those themes. To find some practice of prayer you can add to your day. To decide on some act of charity or work of mercy you’ll take up. And to decide what you can fast from- it might be food, like candy, or it might be your phone, or music and news on the car radio, or soda.

The key is to choose something that you will sustain the whole of Lent, and something that does not gravely disrupt your family life or the people around you. If you drive miles to work, don’t give up driving. If you take care of young children, don’t commit to all-night prayer vigils, at least not every night.

Ideally, the practices of prayer we commit to will become incorporated into our regular lives, and our sacrifices and almsgiving might become something we continue to do as well.

There is a story about Dorothy Day, who used to give up cigarettes each year, but who would annually become so grumpy that the members of her community would beg her to take them back up again. Think about the people you live with, and work with, as you decide on your Lenten practices– If you work in this office, don’t give up showering, please.

But think also about prayer. Eventually Dorothy Day decided that instead of giving up cigarettes for Lent, she would start praying daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She prayed it faithfully for years, though she continued to smoke. One day, she realized she didn’t want to smoke. She never picked up a cigarette again.

Prayer should be the central focus of our Lent. Without prayer, Lent will be a kind of endurance test for us. A test of how strong we are, or how much willpower we have. But Lent isn’t really about that. Lent is about how much we can turn to God the Father, through Jesus, and hand over our lives to him. That should be the center of our Lenten discipline.

So, no candy then?

Maybe on Sundays. Sunday is weekly our celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and some Catholics decide to put aside their Lenten disciplines, in order to celebrate Christ. There are no rules about this; it’s a matter of your individual conscience. If keeping Lenten practices on Sunday helps you to focus on Christ, keep them. If celebrating Sunday with candy helps you to focus on Christ, that’s ok too.

Have a blessed Lent!

This story was originally published March 5, 2019.

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News Briefs

What’s the point of fasting, anyway?

February 19, 2021 CNA Daily News 2

Washington D.C., Feb 19, 2021 / 03:02 pm ().- God commanded it, Jesus practiced it, Church Fathers have preached the importance of it – fasting is a powerful and fundamental part of the Christian life.

But for many Catholics today, it’s more of an afterthought: something we grudgingly do on Good Friday, perhaps on Ash Wednesday if we remember it. Would we fast more, especially during Lent, if we understood how helpful it is for our lives?

The answer to this, say both saints of the past and experts today, is a resounding “yes.”

“Let us take for our standard and for our example those that have run the race, and have won,” said Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo, founding executive director of the Institute of Catholic Culture and a deacon at Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Mclean, Va., of the saints.

“And…those that have run the race and won have been men and women of prayer and fasting.”

So what, in essence, is fasting?

It’s “the deprivation of the good, in order to make a decision for a greater good,” explained Deacon Carnazzo. It is most commonly associated with abstention from food, although it can also take the form of giving up other goods like comforts and entertainment.

The current fasting obligation for Latin Catholics in the United States is this: all over the age of 14 must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays in Lent. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, adults age 18 to 59 must fast – eating no more than one full meal and two smaller meals that together do not add up in quantity to the full meal.

Catholics, “if possible,” can continue the Good Friday fast through Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference adds.

Other Fridays throughout the year (aside from Friday within the Octave of Easter) “are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church,” according to Canon Law 1250. Catholics once abstained from meat on all Fridays, but the U.S. bishops received permission from the Holy See for Catholics to substitute another sacrifice or perform an act of charity instead.

Eastern Rite Catholics, meanwhile, follow the fasting laws of their own particular church.  

In their 1966 “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,” the National Conference of Catholic Bishops exhorted the faithful, on other days of Lent where fasting is not required, to “participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting.”

Aside from the stipulations, though, what’s the point of fasting?

“The whole purpose of fasting is to put the created order and our spiritual life in a proper balance,” Deacon Carnazzo said.

As “bodily creatures in a post-fallen state,” it’s easy to let our “lower passions” for physical goods supersede our higher intellect, he explained. We take good things for granted and reach for them whenever we feel like it, “without thinking, without reference to the One Who gives us the food, and without reference to the question of whether it’s good for us or not,” he added.

Thus, fasting helps “make more room for God in our life,” Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. said.

“And the Lord said at the well, with the (Samaritan) woman, He said that ‘everyone that drinks from this well is going to be thirsty again. Why don’t you let me go to work in your life and I’ll give you a fountain welling up to Eternal Life.’”

While fasting can take many forms, is abstaining from food especially important?  

“The reason why 2000 years of Christianity has said food (for fasting), because food’s like air. It’s like water, it’s the most fundamental,” Deacon Carnazzo said. “And that’s where the Church says ‘stop right here, this fundamental level, and gain control there.’ It’s like the first step in the spiritual life.”

What the Bible says about it

Yet why is fasting so important in the life of the Church? And what are the roots of the practice in Scripture?

The very first fast was ordered by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden, Deacon Carnazzo noted, when God instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17).

This divine prohibition was not because the tree was bad, the deacon clarified. It was “made good” like all creation, but its fruit was meant to be eaten “in the right time and the right way.” In the same way, we abstain from created goods so we may enjoy them “in the right time and the right way.”

The fast is the weapon of protection against demons – St. Basil the Great.

Fasting is also good because it is submission to God, he said. By fasting from the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve would have become partakers in the Divine Nature through their obedience to God. Instead, they tried to take this knowledge of good and evil for themselves and ate the fruit, disobeying God and bringing Original Sin, death, and illness upon mankind.

At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus abstained from food and water for 40 days and nights in the desert and thus “reversed what happened in the Garden of Eden,” Deacon Carnazzo explained. Like Adam and Eve, Christ was tempted by the devil but instead remained obedient to God the Father, reversing the disobedience of Adam and Eve and restoring our humanity.

Following the example of Jesus, Catholics are called to fast, said Fr. Lew. And the Church Fathers preached the importance of fasting.

Why fasting is so powerful

“The fast is the weapon of protection against demons,” taught St. Basil the Great. “Our Guardian Angels more really stay with those who have cleansed our souls through fasting.”

Why is fasting so powerful? “By setting aside this (created) realm where the devil works, we put ourselves into communion with another realm where the devil does not work, he cannot touch us,” Deacon Carnazzo explained.

It better disposes us for prayer, noted Monsignor Pope. Because we feel greater hunger or thirst when we fast from food and water, “it reminds us of our frailty and helps us be more humble,” he said. “Without humility, prayer and then our experience of God really can’t be unlocked.”

Thus, the practice is “clearly linked by St. Thomas Aquinas, writing within the Tradition, to chastity, to purity, and to clarity of mind,” noted Fr. Lew.

“You can kind of postulate from that that our modern-day struggles with the virtue of chastity, and perhaps a lack of clarity in theological knowledge, might be linked to an abandonment of fasting as well.”

A brief history of fasting

The current fasting obligations were set in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but in previous centuries, the common fasts among Catholics were stricter and more regularly observed.  

Catholics abstained from meat on all Fridays of the year, Easter Friday excluded. During Lent, they had to fast – one main meal and two smaller meatless meals – on all days excluding Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. They abstained from meat on Fridays and Saturdays in Lent – the days of Christ’s death and lying in the tomb – but were allowed meat during the main meal on the other Lenten weekdays.

The obligations extended to other days of the liturgical year. Catholics fasted and abstained on the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost Sunday, and on Ember Days – the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Feast of St. Lucy on Dec. 13, after Ash Wednesday, after Pentecost Sunday, and after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September – corresponding with the four seasons.

In centuries past, the Lenten abstention was more austere. Catholics gave up not only meat but also animal products like milk and butter, as well as oil and even fish at times.

Why are today’s obligations in the Latin Rite so minimal? The Church is setting clear boundaries outside of which one cannot be considered to be practicing the Christian life, Deacon Carnazzo explained. That is why intentionally violating the Lenten obligations is a mortal sin.

But should Catholics perform more than the minimum penance that is demanded? Yes, said Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., who is currently studying for a Pontifical License in Sacred Theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

The minimum may be “what is due to God out of justice,” he explained, but we are “called not only to be just to God,” but also “to love God and to love our neighbor.” Charity, he added, “would call us to do more than just the minimum that is applied to us by the Code of Canon Law today, I think.”

In Jeremiah 31: 31-33, God promises to write His law upon our hearts, Deacon Carnazzo noted. We must go beyond following a set of rules and love God with our hearts, and this involves doing more than what we are obliged to do, he added.

Be wary of your motivation

However, Fr. Lew noted, fasting “must be stirred up by charity.” A Catholic should not fast out of dieting or pride, but out of love of God.  

“It’s always dangerous in the spiritual life to compare yourself to other people,” he said, citing the Gospel of John where Jesus instructed St. Peter not to be concerned about the mission of St. John the Apostle but rather to “follow Me.” (John 21: 20-23).

In like manner, we should be focused on God during Lent and not on the sacrifices of others, he said.  

Lent (is referred to) as a joyful season…It’s the joy of loving Him more.

“We will often fail, I think. And that’s not a bad thing. Because if we do fail, this is the opportunity to realize our utter dependence on God and His grace, to seek His mercy and forgiveness, and to seek His strength so that we can grow in virtue and do better,” he added.

And by realizing our weakness and dependence on God, we can “discover anew the depths of God’s mercy for us” and can be more merciful to others, he added.

Giving up good things may seem onerous and burdensome, but can – and should – a Catholic fast with joy?

“It’s referred to in the preface of Lent as a joyful season,” Fr. Lew said. “And it’s the joy of deepening our relationship with Christ, and therefore coming closer to Him. It’s the joy of loving Him more, and the more we love God the closer we draw to Him.”

“Lent is all about the Cross, and eventually the resurrection,” said Deacon Carnazzo. If we “make an authentic, real sacrifice for Christ” during Lent, “we can come to that day of the crucifixion and say ‘Yes Lord, I willingly with you accept the cross. And when we do that, then we will behold the third day of resurrection.’”

This article was originally published on CNA Feb. 20, 2016.


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Essay

Lent: Why the Christian must deny himself

February 15, 2021 CWR Staff 3

Editor’s note: The following essay was originally published in the February 2000 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and was later posted on Ignatius Insight. The author, Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B., has been Abbott […]