Fasting from food and drink before Eucharistic Communion has been a part of Church discipline since the fourth century. Currently the Roman Catholic Church obligates its members to a mitigated form of what at times had been a quite rigorous fast: no food or drink is to be consumed for at least one hour prior to Eucharistic Communion. The discipline, codified in Codex iuris canonici Canon 919, does not prohibit drinking water or taking even solid medicine, nor does it bind the sick and aged or those who are occupied in their care. Priests whose pastoral responsibilities require them to celebrate the Eucharist more than once in a day are bound to the fast prior to the first liturgical celebration only.
The 20th century mitigation of the eucharistic fast has occured in several stages. It can best be understood as a response to the liturgical reform set in motion in 1905 with Pope pius x's promotion of frequent, even daily, Communion for the laity. At the time of Pius X's decree the communion fast involved abstention from all food and drink, including water, from midnight prior to the reception of Communion. This discipline, in the context of 20th century socio-cultural realities, was judged to be an obstacle to the pastoral implementation of the ideal of regular lay Communion. Pope Pius XII's 1953 apostolic constitution Christus Dominus eliminated the prohibition against drinking water; in 1957 he reduced the duration of the fast from food and alcoholic beverages to three hours. After the Second Vatican Council, as part of the renewed effort to promote full and active participation in the eucharistic liturgy, Pope Paul VI decreed in 1964 that the eucharistic fast was further mitigated, binding the Church to abstaining from all food and drink for one hour before Communion; in 1973 he dispensed the sick and their caregivers from even this limited obligation.
History of the Practice. The origins of the discipline are hidden in obscurity. Late fourth century North African councils (Hippo in 393; Carthage in 397) legislated that the Eucharist was to be eaten prior to any other food consumption during a day. St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, advocates this practice in his letter to Januarius, claiming apostolic origin for it while admitting it was not Jesus' mandate. Some authors have attempted to ground the practice in certain statements of third century Church orders, but recent critical scholarship has cast doubt on the validity of these efforts.
In evaluating the claim for apostolic origin of the practice, liturgical and canonical historians note the witness of I Corinthians and other first century noncanonical writings that in the primitive church the Eucharist was celebrated in the course of a meal. When the Eucharist and meal were separated, the practice of a community agape persisted, although in what relationship to the Church's eucharistic action is unclear. The fourth century legislation specifically notes that on Holy Thursday the sequence of Eucharistic Communion before other eating does not obligate the Church, leading some contemporary commentators to hypothesize an active memory of an earlier practice, if not its persistence. The fact of the fourth century exception is still handed on by St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, but as a practice long superseded.
In the present state of historical research scholars can only speculate about the ecclesial currents which gave rise to the early discipline. Once in place, the discipline gained in precision and rigor throughout the medieval period. Some medieval legislators ruled that infants at the breast—who according to ancient custom had first received Communion at their Baptisms—were obligated to the fast. Other legislators required a post-communion fast of several hours as well as a pre-communion fast. In some areas, even those lay people who were not communicants were required to keep the communion fast until the priest had communicated on behalf of the Church at the public liturgy of the day.
Reasons for the Eucharistic Fast. The motivation for the communion fast was most commonly discussed in terms of the basic need for respect for the Blessed Sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood. Aquinas proposed two other motives for the fast: to respond to the Lord's injunction "Seek first the kingdom of God" (Mt 6. 33); and to avoid the dangers of vomiting from the intemperance that can accompany eating, for which he cites Paul as authority in I Cor 11.21. When the discipline for the eucharistic fast was introduced into the text of the 1570 Missal of Pius V, the norms enunciated there reflected the tradition as it had been received and interpreted by Aquinas. Aquinas' authority seems also to have stabilized the calculation of the fast from midnight, the start of the Roman day.
Subsequent centuries saw a development of the tradition according to the principles of casuistry operative in moral theology in the post-Tridentine period. Casuists concerned themselves with helping fasters by introducing flexibility into the calculation of midnight (through attention to variables like daylight/standard time and the faster's geographical location in relation to legal time zones). They also debated whether items taken into the mouth but not swallowed (mouthwash, chewing gum, tobacco) or items swallowed accidentally (paper or string) broke the fast and required the ingester to abstain from Communion.
These preoccupations with technical transgression, which shaped much catechesis on the eucharistic fast even in the pre-conciliar period, confirm from another direction the wisdom of the relaxation of the discipline. However, the vestiges of the casuistic attitude have resulted in a discipline lacking firm foundation in Christian religious sensibilities and authentic Christian spirituality. At the onset of the mitigation process in the 1950s, Godfrey Diekmann proposed reaffirmation of the spiritual basis for a eucharistic fast in the paschal character of the mystery of salvation. Self-emptying is a necessary moment prior to receiving the divine fullness. It has also been suggested that the pre-communion fast is a way of ritualizing the spiritual hunger which should characterize all those who gather at the eucharistic table.
Bibliography: international commission on english in the liturgy, Documents on the Liturgy 1963–79 (Collegeville, Minn. 1982). st. thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae 3a 80.8. t.f. anglin, The Eucharistic Fast: An Historical Synopsis and Commentary (Washington, D.C. 1941). g. diekmann, "The Fast Ought Not Prevent Communion," Worship 27 (1953) 516–23. j. m. frochisse, "A propos des origines de jeñne eucharistique," Revue d'Histoire Ecclesiastique 28 (1932) 594–609. j. p. beal, j. a. coriden and t. j. green, eds., New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (New York-Mahwah, N.J. 2000).