by James Monti 

Fasting and Abstinence

As we have discovered already, the most primitive practice associated with the days preceding Easter was the observance of fasting: certainly this was the case by the end of the second century. During the third century a weeklong fast emerged, with fasting of a particularly rigorous nature on the Friday and Saturday of the Easter Triduum. But it is not until the fourth century that an extended period of fasting - the season of Lent - appears, serving as a preparation for the more severe fasting of Holy Week.

The Week of Salvation

The concept of just what constituted a fast varied considerably during the earlier centuries of the Church's history. The fifh century historian Socrates speaks of the different kinds of fasting extant in his own age:

Some abstain from every sort of creature that has life, while others of all the living creatures eat of fish only. Others eat birds as well as fish, because, according to the Mosaic account of the Creation, they too sprang from the water; other abstain from fruit covered with a hard shell and from eggs. Some eat dry bread only, others not even that; other again when they have fasted to the ninth hour (three o'clock) partake of various kinds of food.40

The most common manner of fasting was to abstain from all nourishment until the evening, when one meal could be taken; at this meal the consumption of meat and (in earlier times) wine was prohibited. A stricter fast, known as the xerophagia, was enjoined for Holy Week and especially Good Friday: At the one daily meal only dry food, bread, salt, and vegetables were permitted. Abstinence from lacticinia (dairy products) arose at a later date; Pope Saint Gregory I (540604) speaks of it in a letter to Saint Augustine of Canterbury:

We abstain from fish, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.41

Shortly afterwards, abstinence from lacticinia was incorporated into the Church’s canon law; nonetheless, during the centuries that followed, many dispensations from this aspect of abstinence were granted.

The time for the one meal permitted on fast days was gradually advanced; already in the fifth century it was considered acceptable to begin the meal as early as three o’clock in the afternoon. By the end of the thirteenth century, theologians such as the Franciscan Richard Middleton had concluded that this meal could be taken as early as noon. Meanwhile another aspect of the fasting law was undergoing relaxation. In the ninth century the Council of Aix la Chapelle (Germany) gave permission for a "collation": those engaged in heavy labor were permitted to have a drink of water or some other beverage in the evening (in addition to the earlier meal). Eventually the definition of the "collation" was widened to include solid food not in excess of eight ounces. In more recent centuries, permission was granted for a third break in the daily fast an early morning repast consisting of a drink plus a small piece of bread. Abstinence from meat was gradually relaxed to allow its consumption at one meal daily on almost any fast day of Lent except Fridays. This dispensation was extended to include Holy Thursday, which until then had always been a meatless day. However, the consumption of both meat and fish at the same meal during Lent was prohibited. During the last few decades numerous dispensations and modifications to the laws of fasting and abstinence have been granted. Finally, Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Constitution Puenitemini, issued in February of 1966, revised and considerably simplified the laws in this regard. Many formerly obligatory days of fasting and/or abstinence were abrogated. The provisions of this document stipulate the days of penance retained in the liturgical calendar, as well as the Church’s contemporary definition of what constitutes fasting and abstinence; the right of bishops’ conferences to substitute other forms of penance in place of fasting and abstinence is also indicated:

II.1. The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday.... Their substantial observance binds gravely.

2. A part from the faculties referred to in VI and VIII regarding the manner of fulfilling the precept of penitence on such days, abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation, while abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday... and on Good Friday.

III.1. The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat.

2. The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing — as far as quantity and quality are concerned — approved local custom.

IV. To the law of abstinence those are bound who have completed their 14th year of age. To the law of fast those of the faithful are bound who have completed their 18th year and up until the beginning of their 60th year....

VI. 1. In accordance with the conciliar decree Christus Dominus regarding the pastoral office of bishops, number 38,4, it is the task of episcopal conferences to:

A. Transfer for just cause the days of penitence, always taking into account the Lenten season;

B. Substitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and the exercises of piety.42

These laws of fasting and abstinence have since been incorporated into the new Code of Canon Law, issued in February of 1983 (Canons 1249 to 1253.)43


39. Based upon Father Herbert Thurston, SJ, "Lent," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907, Vol. 9, pp. 152-154, except where noted otherwise.

40. Hist. Eccl., V, 22, quoted in Thurston, P. 153.

41. Thurston, p. 153.

42. Chapter 3, Apostolic Constitution on Penance, 17 Feb 1966, in Vatican Council II: More Postconciliar Documents (Vatican Collection, Vol II), Austin Flannery, OP, ed., pp. 7-8.

43. Book IV, Part III, Title II, chapter II, in The Code of Canon Law: In English Translation, Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1983, p. 218).

Copyright © 1993 by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. All rights reserved.
Order The Week of Salvation by James Monti. Centering on the pivotal events of the Passion, this outstanding work examines in comprehensive detail the scriptural, liturgical, and devotional dimensions of Holy Week.