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The Catholic Church historically observed the discipline of fasting or abstinence at various times each year. For Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one's intake of food, while abstinence refers to refraining from meat (or another type of food). The Catholic Church teaches that all people are obliged by God to perform some penance for their sins, and that these acts of penance are both personal and corporate. The purpose of fasting is spiritual focus, self-discipline, imitation of Christ, and performing penance.
Contemporary Roman legislation, which is followed by Catholics of the Latin Rite (who comprise most Catholics) is rooted in the 1966 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, and codified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (in Canons 1249-1253). According to Paenitemini and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, both abstinence and fasting are required of Catholics who are not exempted for various reasons. All Fridays of the year are days of penance. All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence on all Fridays that are not Solemnities. Nevertheless, both Paenitemini and the 1983 Code of Canon Law permitted the Episcopal Conferences to propose further relaxations of the laws on fasting and abstinence for their home territories, and most have done so. For example, in some countries, the Bishops' Conferences have obtained from Rome the substitution of pious or charitable acts for abstinence from meat on all Fridays of the year (including Fridays of Lent) except Good Friday. Others have retained abstinence on Lenten Fridays, but not on Fridays outside of Lent. However, some Catholics still voluntarily abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year.
Members of the Eastern Catholic Churches are obliged to follow the discipline of their own particular church. While some Eastern Catholics try to follow the stricter rules of their Orthodox counterparts, the actual canonical obligations of Eastern Catholics to fast and abstain are usually much more lenient than those of the Orthodox. It is presumed that the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter (the newly created jurisdiction of the Church for former Anglicans) will assume the discipline of Friday abstinence as conceived in the Book of Common Prayer. Early Prayer Books set out rules that were in-line with the Sarum Rite of the time, where most days prior to Solemnities and Feasts were delegated as "days of abstinence" along with the Rogation Days. The eating of fish on these days is generally ruled out within the English Patrimony of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter.
The practice of penance during Lent, the time before Easter, has roots in the early Church. These days were at one time observed with a Black Fast of strictly no more than one meal, without meat, dairy, oil, or wine, taken after sunset. In the 14th century the meal was allowed at mid-day, and soon the practice of an evening collation (snack) became common. A morning collation was introduced in the 19th century. Fasting was still often accompanied by complete abstinence from meat, although this was not always the case.
In the early 20th century, Church law prescribed fasting throughout Lent, with abstinence only on Friday and Saturday. Some countries received dispensations: Rome in 1918 allowed the bishops of Ireland to transfer the Saturday obligation to Wednesday; in the United States, abstinence was not required on Saturday. The other weekdays were simply days of "fasting without abstinence." A similar practice (common in the United States) was called "partial abstinence", which allowed meat only once during the day at the main meal. (There is nothing in current Catholic Canon Law which corresponds to "partial abstinence".) The countries of the former Spanish empire also had their own extensive dispensations from the Roman rules of fasting and abstinence, based on the "Crusader privileges" of the Spanish dominions as codified in the Bull of the Crusade. In some European colonies, the obligation to fast and abstain differed by race, with natives often having more lenient rules than Europeans or mestizos.
Besides Lent, there were other penitential times customarily accompanied by fasting or abstinence. These included Advent, the Ember Days, the Rogation Days, Fridays throughout the year, sometimes Wednesdays and Saturdays also, and the day before some important feast days (called a vigil).
Advent is considered a time of special self-examination, humility, and spiritual preparation in anticipation of the birth of Christ. Fridays and Saturdays in Advent were days of abstinence, and until early in the 20th century, the Fridays of Advent were also days of fasting.
The vigils observed included the Saturday before Pentecost, October 31 (the vigil of All Saints), December 24 (Christmas Eve), December 7 (the vigil of the Immaculate Conception) and August 14 (the vigil of the Assumption). These vigils all required fasting; some also required abstinence. If any of these fell on a Sunday, the vigil, but not the obligation of fasting, was moved to the Saturday before. (Some other liturgical days were also known as vigils but neither fasting nor abstinence was required, particularly the vigils of feasts of the Apostles and the Vigil of the Epiphany.) By 1959 in the United States, the fast for the vigil of Christmas was moved to December 23.
Ember days occurred four times a year. The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the ember week were days of fast and abstinence, though the Wednesday and Saturday were often only days of partial abstinence. In addition, Roman Catholics were required to abstain from meat (but not fast) on all other Fridays, unless the Friday coincided with a holy day of obligation.
The former regulations on abstinence obliged Roman Catholics starting as young as age seven, but there were many exceptions. Large classes of people were considered exempt from fasting and abstinence, not only the sick and those with physically demanding jobs, but also people traveling and students. The regulations were adapted to each nation, and so in most dioceses in America abstinence from meat was not required on the Friday after Thanksgiving, to accommodate any meat left over from that US national holiday.
On the eve of Vatican II, fasting and abstinence requirements in numerous Catholic countries were already greatly relaxed compared to the beginning of the 20th century, with fasting often reduced to just 4 days of the year (Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, the vigil of Christmas or the day before, and the vigil either of the Immaculate Conception or of the Assumption).
Contemporary legislation is rooted in the 1966 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini. He recommended that fasting be appropriate to the local economic situation, and that all Catholics voluntarily fast and abstain. He also allowed that fasting and abstinence might be substituted with prayer and works of charity, although the norms for doing so were to be set down by the Episcopal Conferences.
Current practice of fast and abstinence is regulated by Canons 1250-1253 of the 1983 code. They specify that all Fridays throughout the year, and the time of Lent are penitential times throughout the entire Church. All adults (those who have attained the 'age of majority', which varies from country to country) are bound by law to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until the beginning of their sixtieth year. All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence on all Fridays unless they are solemnities, but in practice this requirement has been greatly reduced by the Episcopal Conferences because under Canon 1253, it is these Conferences that have the authority to set down the local norms for fasting and abstinence in their territories.
Although the current Canon Law effective for the Western church does not specify the exact meaning of fasting, the traditional interpretation follows the earlier practice that on the days of mandatory fasting, Catholics may eat only one full meal during the day. Additionally, they may eat up to two small meals or snacks, known as "collations". Church requirements on fasting only relate to solid food, not to drink, so Church law does not restrict the amount of water or other beverages - even alcoholic drinks - which may be consumed.
In some Western countries, Catholics have been encouraged to adopt non-dietary forms of abstinence during Lent. For example, in 2009 Monsignor Benito Cocchi, Bishop of Modena, urged young Catholics to give up text messaging for Lent.
On 25 November 2010 the Irish Bishops’ Conference published the resource leaflet Friday Penance. It followed from the March 2010 Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland from Pope Benedict XVI suggesting initiatives to support renewal in the Church in Ireland. He asked that Irish Catholics offer their Friday Penances “for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength,” and that fasting, prayer, reading of Scripture and works of mercy be offered in order to obtain healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland.
The leaflet states that Penance "arises from the Lord’s call to conversion and repentance" and describes that it is an "essential part of all genuine Christian living":
Friday Penance also explains why penance is important: “Declaring some days throughout the year as days of fast and abstinence (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) is meant to intensify penances of the Christian. Lent is the traditional season for renewal and penance but Catholics also observe each Friday of the year as days of penance. The link between Friday and penance is extremely ancient and is even reflected in the Irish language word for Friday: An Aoine (The Fast).”
The leaflet suggests ways of fulfilling Friday penance such as abstaining from meat or alcohol, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or helping the poor, sick and lonely as well as other suggestions.
These statements mean, according to Richert:
In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has declared that "the age of fasting is from the completion of the eighteenth year to the beginning of the sixtieth." The USCCB also allows the substitution of some other form of penance for abstinence on all of the Fridays of the year, except for those Fridays in Lent. Thus, the rules for fasting and abstinence in the United States are:
- Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.
- Every person between the age of 18 and 60 must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
- Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on all other Fridays of the year, unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance for abstinence.
According to the USCCB website
Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs --- all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat. Abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are technically not forbidden. However, moral theologians have traditionally taught that we should abstain from all animal-derived products (except foods such as gelatin, butter, cheese and eggs, which do not have any meat taste). Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.
Because of this, some catholic parishes in the United States sponsor a fish fry during Lent. In predominantly Roman Catholic areas, restaurants may adjust their menus during Lent by adding seafood items to the menu in an attempt to appeal to Roman Catholics. However, the same USCCB website says that:
While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not considered meat and can be consumed on days of abstinence, indulging in the lavish buffet at your favorite seafood place sort of misses the point. Abstaining from meat and other indulgences during Lent is a penitential practice.
The USCCB website also states that:
Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.
Current norms for England and Wales, issued by the Bishops' Conference in May 2011, re-introduced the expectation that all Catholics able to do so should abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, effective Friday, September 16, 2011.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops decrees that the days of fast and abstinence in Canada are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and specifies that Fridays are days of abstinence. This includes, but not necessary just Fridays of Lent. Although, Catholics can substitute special acts of charity or piety on these days.
To fast customarily means to only eat one meal during the day, and to avoid animal products. Fasting is viewed as one part of repentance and supporting a spiritual change of heart. Eastern Christians observe two major times of fasting, the "Great Fast" before Easter, and "Phillip's Fast" before the Nativity.
During the Great Fast, meat, eggs, dairy products, fish and oil are avoided.
The fast period before Christmas is called "Philip's Fast" because it begins after the feast day of St. Philip. Specific practices vary, but on some days during the week meat, dairy products and (in some countries) oil are avoided, while on other days there is no restriction. During approximately the last week before the Nativity, typically meat, dairy, eggs and oil are avoided on all days, meals are moderate in quantity, and no food is taken between meals.
In addition to the fasts mentioned above, Roman Catholics must also observe the Eucharistic Fast, which involves taking nothing but water and medicines into the body for some time before receiving the Eucharist. The earliest recorded regular practice was to eat at home before the Lord's Supper if one was hungry (I Corinthians 11:34). The next known ancient practice was to fast from midnight until Mass that day. As Masses after noon and in the evening became common in the West, this was soon modified to fasting for three hours. The latest Code of Canon Law reduced the Eucharistic Fast to the current one hour requirement for the Roman Rite. Particular law in some Eastern Catholic Churches also requires a one hour Eucharistic fast.