Fast and Abstinence

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Fasting is here understood as the complete or partial abstention from food, abstinence as the abstention from the eating of meat of certain meat products, when the restraint is undertaken as a religious practice or in accordance with ecclesiastical custom or law. Neither fast nor abstinence is to be confused with the virtue of abstinence, which is a subjective part of temperance that controls the desire and the use of food, although both can be acts of that virtue.

In The Bible. The Biblical concept of fasting embraced both partial and total abstinence from food and drink. The abstention from certain classes of foods that was regulated by dietary law did not fall within the ambit of fasting. The noun used for the term "fast" in the OT was ôm, a derivative of the verb ûm, to fast. Such phrases as "not to eat bread" (2 Sm 12.17) and "to mortify oneself" (literally: "to bow down one's soul," Lv 16.29) came into common usage with the Priestly Code and were widely used in post-Biblical Hebrew. Both the Septuagint and the NT employed the verb νηστεύειν to designate fasting as a religious or pious practice. The cognate noun νηστεία was used almost exclusively to denote religious fasting.

Little is known regarding the origin of fasting in Israel. The custom was ancient before it entered legislation. It appears to have been practiced for a variety of religious motives, especially in times of calamity (in order to give force to prayers for deliverance) and of mourning (1 Sm7.6; J1 1.14; Jgs 20.26; 2 Chr 20.3; 1 Kgs 21.9). The Mosaic Law established only one day of fasting, the great Day of atonement (Lv 16.2934; Nm 29.7). After the Exile four special days of fasting were added (Zec 8.19).

Christian Practice. Following the examples of Christ (Mt 6.16; Mk 2.20; 9.29) and the Apostles (Acts 13.2; 14.23; 2 Cor 2.27), the earliest Christians practiced both fast and abstinence. In early centuries regular weekly fasts were practiced on Wednesday and Friday (didache), and abstinence from certain foods, especially flesh meats, was established. The observance of the Friday abstinence in commemoration of the Passion and death of Our Lord was common in both the Eastern and Western Church (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 6.75; Tertullian, De jejunio, 14). Throughout the history of the Church, law and custom regarding fast and abstinence were subject to local variations, both as to the times observed and as to the quantity and quality of food permitted.

In the Western Church. About 400 the Wednesday fast was replaced by that of Saturday, which had come to be regarded also as a day of abstinence, The observance of Lent was of early origin, and the vigil fasts before great feasts, the Ember days, and rogation days eventually came to be observed.

Following the custom of the Jews under the old law, Christians first practiced fasting by abstaining from all food until after sunset or after the recitation of Vespers, when the day's meal would be taken. About the 9th century it began to be customary in some places to take the day's meal after the recitation of None, or about 3 P.M. It had been the custom on days of fasting to say Mass only after the hour of None. This order of the Office was retained, but to make allowance for new customs of fasting the hours of Vespers and None were anticipated, and this led to the celebration of Mass earlier in the day. In the 12th century the custom of breaking one's fast at the hour of None everywhere prevailed, and by the 13th century the practice of taking the meal as early as noon was common.

As the time of the day's meal became earlier and earlier, the exhaustion at the end of the day's labor, unrelieved by the refreshment of food, became more burdensome. In the monasteries, where the days of fasting were much more numerous and where the practice of mid-day meal had also been established, the monks had much earlier distinguished between days of fast prescribed by monastic rule and those observed by the Church. On days of monastic but not Church fast the monks were allowed a slight repast or "collation" to be taken during the evening conference (in Latin called collatio because the readings were frequently taken from the Collationes of Cassian). At first the monastic collation was only a small measure of wine, but later a morsel of bread was added. Monastic practice thus provided the example for general custom. By the 13th century taking something to drink apart from the day's meal was a generally accepted practice, and by the end of the 14th century it was common custom to take a collation of bread, vegetables, or fruit at the end of the day. This collation, however, was never understood to be of sufficient quantity to constitute a normal meal. About the 16th century a very light breakfast was approved. It was understood that at the collation not more than eight ounces of solid food were to be eaten, and at breakfast not more than about two ounces.

Fasting meant not only the observance of the requirements of custom with regard to the quantity of food and the time when it could be eaten, but also abstinence from certain types of food, particularly flesh meat and meat products. Days of fasting were thus days of abstinence although other days might be marked for the observance of abstinence alone. The laws regarding abstinence, like those of fasting, were of unwritten origin and were always subject to variations in custom in time and place. In the early Church abstinence meant refraining from flesh meat and all meat products, including milk, eggs, butter, and cheese. Fish or mollusks, however, were not generally considered to be a form of meat or to fall under the prohibition of abstinence. As early as the 9th century milk, eggs, and milk products began to be exempted either by the force of local custom or by repeated dispensation.

In the Eastern Church. From the earliest times, Wednesday and Friday of each week were observed as days of abstinence in the Greek Church. Other days and seasons were added in the course of time. The major Lent goes back to the 2nd century. In the 4th century it was spoken of as the "holy forty" (days), but at some times and in certain places it was a much more extended period. In addition to the great, or major, Lent, three other "Lents" have been observed in the Eastern Church: the Lent of the holy Apostles (June 1628); Mary's Lent (August 114); and the Lent preceding Christmas (November 15December 24). These three minor Lents did not become obligatory before the 8th century; thence to the faithful. Days observed by fasting and abstinence have been numerous in the East; in the Greek Church the total has been as high as 180 in the course of a year.

The practice of abstinence was especially prevalent among the early hermits of the East. St. Anthony and his followers abstained from all food except bread, salt, and watera practice continued by Pachomius and the Egyptian monks. Monastic fasting and abstinence tended to be extremely rigorous in the East, and this severity had its influence on observance that came to be expected of the faithful. The law of abstinence is referred to as xerophagy, the eating of dry food. In older times on days of abstinence meat and meat products (milk, butter, cheese, eggs), fish, oil, and wine were forbidden. This traditional custom of severe abstinence is still observed by some of the faithful. Rigorous periods of abstinence were often preceded by a week of mitigated abstinence.

In more modern times fast and abstinence in the Eastern Church is often found to be the same both for Churches in union with Rome and for separated Churches.

General Law and U.S. Practice . Until 1917 the general law of the Western Church required the faithful to fast on all the days of Lent except Sunday; on Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays of the Ember weeks; and on the vigils of Christmas, Pentecost, Assumption, and All Saints. By custom in many places the Wednesdays and Fridays of Advent were also fast days. By fasting was understood the taking of only one meal a day with abstinence from meat, eggs, and milk products. Moreover, fish was not to be taken along with meat at a meal allowing meat, that is, on the Sundays of Lent, or on normal fast days by those who were otherwise dispensed from meat abstinence. Abstinence without fast was observed on all Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year.

Local dispensations often mitigated these general prohibition. In the U.S. the bishops obtained a number of dispensations. The fathers of the Third Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1837 obtained a dispensation from the custom of fasting on the Wednesdays and Fridays of Advent; and in 1840 the Fourth Provincial Council of Baltimore asked that an indult dispensing from the Saturday abstinence that had been granted for 10 years be made perpetual. Gregory XVI renewed the dispensation for 20 years.

The fathers of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866 asked that all dispensations that had been granted to the Province of Baltimore be extended to all other dioceses. However, Pius IX preferred to have the individual bishops seek the indults they needed and give their reasons. Since the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 decided that it would be very difficult to pass any uniform legislation on the subject of fast and abstinence, it was left to the individual bishops to determine in provincial councils what seemed best for their territories.

In 1886 Leo XIII granted to all the bishops of the U.S. for 10 years the faculty to dispense each year from the Saturdays abstinence. He also approved a Lenten indult for the U.S. that permitted the taking of meat, eggs, and milk products at all meals on the Sundays of Lent and at the principal meal on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Holy Saturday and the Saturdays of Ember weeks were excepted. Fish and meat were never allowed at the same meal, even on Sundays. The use of eggs and milk products at the evening collation and at the principal meal on days when meat was not allowed was permitted. A small piece of bread in the morning could be taken with coffee, tea, chocolate, or any similar beverage. It was permissible to invert the order of the principal meal when this could not be taken at noon. Lard and meat drippings could be used in the preparation of foods. Finally, the faithful who were exempt from the law of fasting could, when the use of meat, eggs, and milk products was permitted, eat such foods more than once a day just as all were permitted to do on the Sundays of Lent when the obligation of fasting did not bind.

In constant use until 1951 was the workingmen's privilege. This was originally granted for 10 years in 1895 and empowered the bishops in the U.S. to permit the use of flesh meat in those circumstances if place and person in which they judged that the common law of abstinence could not be observed without real difficulty. This concession benefited not only the individual workingman but applied also to his family.

In 1917 Benedict XV granted the privilege of transferring abstinence from the Saturdays of Lent to any other day of the week except Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. In 1941 Pius XII granted to all the bishops of the world the power to dispense entirely from fast and abstinence except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Some restrictions on this faculty were imposed by the Holy See in 1949namely, that abstinence must be observed on all Fridays of the year; fast and abstinence, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the vigils of Assumption and Christmas. On days of fast the vigils and abstinence, eggs and milk products could be taken at breakfast and at the collation.

In 1951 a bishops' committee drew up a formula of uniform norms that became the basis for diocesan regulations in the U.S. Regarding abstinence the formula stated:(1) everyone over seven years of age was bound to observe the law of abstinence; (2) complete abstinence was to be observed on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, the vigils of Assumption and Christmas, and Holy Saturday morning. On these days meat and soup or gravy made from meat were not to be taken; (3) partial abstinence was to be observed on Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays, and on the vigils of Pentecost and All Saints. On days of partial abstinence meat and soup or gravy made from meat could be taken only once a day at the principal meal.

In regard to fasting the formula stated: (1) everyone over 21 and under 59 years of age was bound to observe the law of fast; (2) the days of fast were the weekdays of Lent, Ember days, the vigils of Pentecost, Assumption, All Saints, and Christmas; (3) on days of fast only one full meal was allowed. Two other meatless meals, sufficient to maintain strength, were permitted according to each one's needs; but together they should not equal another full meal; (4) meat was permitted at the principal meal on a day of fast except on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and the vigils of Assumption and Christmas; (5) eating between meals was not permitted; but liquids, including milk and fruit juices, were allowed; (6) when health or ability to work would be seriously affected, the law did not oblige.

In 1956 the bishops of the U.S. slightly modified these norms. Holy Saturdays was excluded as a day of abstinence; the entire day became one only of fast. The vigil of All Saints was no longer listed as a day of fast or of partial abstinence. By decree of the Congregation of the Council in 1957, the law of fast and abstinence that had long been established for the vigil of the Assumption was transferred to the vigil of the Immaculate Conception.

On Dec. 3, 1959, John XXIII granted to all the faithful the faculty of anticipating the obligation of the Christmas Eve fast and abstinence form the 24th to the 23d of December.

Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution and the 1983 Code. Numerous indults obtained for various countries of the world led to widely different ways of observing the law of fast and abstinence until Pope Paul VI reorganized the ecclesiastical discipline. By the apostolic constitution Poenitemini, promulgated Feb. 17, 1966, Paul VI sought to renew "penitential discipline with practices more suited to our times." Insisting upon the preeminently interior and religious character of penitence, the pope warns that true penance cannot ever "prescind from physical asceticism as well." The traditional and fundamental means of fulfilling the divine precepts of penance are prayer, fasting, and charity, but the form of penance will vary according to the economic well-being of the locality.

Poenitemini provides the historical, doctrinal, and disciplinary background for canons governing penitential observance in the 1983 Code. The first of the five canons emphasizes the importance for all the faithful to be united by some common observance (c. 1249). Canon 1250 prescribes the penitential days and times observed in the universal church as Fridays throughout the year and the season of Lent. Canon 1251 explains that "abstinence from eating meat or some other food" as well as fasting are to be observed without exception on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The law of abstinence binds everyone who is 14 and older, and everyone between 18 and 60 must fast (c. 1252). The Code leaves it to the conference of bishops to "determine more precisely" particulars regarding the observance of fast and abstinence as well as "other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety" that might be substituted for abstinence and fast.

In November, 1966 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on regulating penitential discipline in the United States. The obligation to fast and abstain "from which no Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself" binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. "We preserve for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice." The bishops strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed program of fasting during Lent.

A few weeks later (Dec. 1, 1966), the bishops' committee on doctrine in answer to two questions responded, that neither the fast-abstinence of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday nor the abstinence of the Fridays of Lent binds gravely as an ecclesiastical law. The divine precept of penitence, however, binds all Catholics in a serious manner. Anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ should approach Him in a spirit of repentance. "It is obvious that if his disposition is such that he is unwilling to do anything to answer the Lord's call to do penance and follow the pastoral injunctions of his shepherds, he would reveal a mortally serious state of soul, and further specifications would seem to be purely academic."

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