Monday, February 05, 2024

In the Approach to Lent: Fasting Matters

The Church has hallowed the practice of fasting, encourages it, and mandates it at certain times. Why? The Angelic Doctor writes that fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose: “First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh… Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things…Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins...’”

St. Basil the Great also affirmed the importance of fasting for protection against demonic forces: “The fast is the weapon of protection against demons. Our Guardian Angels more readily stay with those who have cleansed our souls through fasting.”

The Baltimore Catechism echoes these sentiments: “The Church commands us to fast and abstain, in order that we may mortify our passions and satisfy for our sins” (BC#2 Q. 395). Concerning this rationale, Fr. Thomas Kinkead in An Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism of Christian Doctrine published in 1891 writes, “Remember it is our bodies that generally lead us into sin; if therefore we punish the body by fasting and mortification, we atone for the sin, and thus God wipes out a part of the temporal punishment due to it.”

Pope St. Leo the Great in 461 wisely counseled that fasting is a means and not an end in itself. For those who could not observe the strictness of fasting, he sensibly said, “What we forego by fasting is to be given as alms to the poor.” To forgo fasting, even if for legitimate health reasons, does not excuse a person from the universal command to do penance (cf. Luke 13, 3). It must be stated that we do not gain merits in the performance of penance, no matter how severe, if we are in the state of mortal sin. Staying in the state of grace is essential for meriting.

Learning What We Have Lost is the First Step in Recovering Our Heritage

But how do we fast as Catholics? While the modern Church has reduced fasting to nearly nonexistent levels, our forefathers regularly fasting. Fasting was as essential to Catholic life as Sunday Mass. In fact, roughly 1/3 of the year was a day of fasting and 2/3 of the year were days of abstinence. Not all days of abstinence were fasting days but all days of fasting were those of abstinence.

The book “The Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting and Abstinence” by Matthew Plese goes over in detail the forgotten history of how we have lost our heritage in fasting and abstinence steadily over the centuries. But as we must do with the Mass, devotions, and customs, we can help restore Christendom by implementing fasting in our own lives voluntarily in the manner practiced by our ancestors. Thus, we lay the foundation to Catholic culture brick by brick and restore fasting in a manner that our Catholic forefathers knew and practiced.

The following chart is taken from that book and reproduced here with the author’s permission for the edification of all. As seen here, fasting did not vanish in the aftermath of the 1960s revolution. On the contrary, fasting and abstinence were slowly eroded over the centuries (click to enlarge): 

This Lent we can refer to this chart as a guide to help us implement authentic and truly Catholic fasting and abstinence goals, which go far behind the minimum required by Church law. To this end, the example of St. Fructuosus should inspire us to want to do more. Fr. Alban Butler in Moveable Feasts and Fasts provides the following testimony:
St. Fructuosus, the holy bishop of Tarragon in Spain, in the persecution of Valerian in 259, being led to martyrdom on a Friday at ten o’clock in the morning, refused to drink, because it was not the hour to break the fast of the day, though fatigued with imprisonment, and standing in need of strength to sustain the conflict of his last agony. "It is a fast," said he: "I refuse to drink; it is not yet the ninth hour; death itself shall not oblige me to abridge my fast."
That is the kind of devotion we should likewise exhibit in our own Lenten resolutions in the observance of the Church’s precepts!

Key of Terms and Annotated Citations

The following list of definitions and citations was provided by Matthew Plese to accompany the chart.


1. A collation is a small repast allowed originally only in the evenings of fast days.

2. A frustulum is a small repast allowed originally only in the mornings on fast days.

3. Xerophagiae is a diet of simple, dry, uncooked food, such as raw nuts, bread, fruits, and vegetables. Fish and oil are not part of it; neither are flesh and animal products. It was a precept to fast on these things alone during Holy Week by custom and/or decree until the time of Gregory the Great who mentions nothing of it. It may still have been a custom at that time but no mention of it is made in the decretals.

4. The “Passion Fast” is a term which refers to the fast which began for some as early as sunset on Holy Thursday and for others as late as 8am on Good Friday. No one was allowed to eat any food during that time until midnight on Easter Sunday, which, since most fasted for Communion, extended until morning on Easter Sunday. It was often called a “40hrs Fast” and represents the original Lenten fast. For those too weak to follow this fast, the minimum fast at this time was that of xerophagiae.

Annotated Citations

1. Water is not allowed during the day outside of sunset repast. (Butler, Moveable Feasts, 1839, p.155) (Cf. AP. S. Prudentius, hymn, vi, p.188)

2. On the Sunset Repast. (Butler, p.149) (Tertullian, De Jejun., c.x., p.549); (Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1958, p.170)

3. When the collation was allowed by indult. (Butler, p. 149)

4. When the collation was allowed to the laity. (Butler, p. 152)

5. The original size of the collation. (Butler, p.152)

6. When the collation became ¼ of a meal or 8 ounces. It became ¼ of a meal in the 16th century. (Laymann, Theologia Moralis, 1630, Lib. IV, Tract. VIII, Ch. I, pp.186-187)

7. The frustulum originated around the time of St. Alphonsus Liguori c. 18th century (The Jurist, 1952, p.188) The more common opinion is that St. Alphonsus speaks of electuaries, which were popular in his time. That the origins of the frustulum can be traced to his time is true as a kind of proto-frustulum. However, the greater proof lies in the claim that the frustulum was not explicitly allowed until the end of the 19th century. (Catholic Encyclopedia, Lent)

8. Fish in Lent is permitted in its simple “less dainty” form in the 7th century. The allowance of shellfish was permitted around the 10th century (Butler, Moveable Feasts…, 1839, p.146)

9. That animal products were not had on days of abstinence. (Weiser, p.170) (Cf. Decretals of Gratian, Letter of Pope St. Gregory the Great to Saint Augustine of Canterbury, 604 AD)

10. That Sundays were days of abstinence. (Thurston, Herbert. "Lent." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, 1910)

11. The Passion Fast. (Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, p.201) (Cf. The writings of Saint Irenaeus in 202 AD as quoted in The Church History of Eusebius V 24, 12; PG, 20, 502f)

12. Xerophagiae in Lent. (Butler, p.203-4)

13. On wine in Lent. (Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year: Lent, 1887, p. 5) (Cf. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. iv)

14. On when liquids other than wine and water allowed. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, qu.cxlvii,; Rev. Antoine Villien, A History of the Commandments of the Church, p. 315.) Since liquids do not break the fast, the kind of liquid and/or when it can be taken is now a non-matter. This discourse by St. Thomas was the beginning of this radical change which would not become a general custom until around the 15th century, when food came to be allowed at the collation. Until then, liquid was, strictly speaking, only allowed twice a day.

15. When the time of the meal changed to 3pm. (Butler, p.149; St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, q. 147, a. 7)

16. When the time of the meal changed to 12pm. (Butler, p.150; Durandus a S. Porciano, in 4 dist., 15 quaest., 9., art. 7)

17. When the time of the meal became a defunct matter. (CIC/17, c.1252)

18. Not less than a second meal for collation size. (Jone, p. 263; McHugh and Callan, pp. 3118-3119) As of 1951, the United States Conference of Bishops adopted the relative norm as the law for the US and as such now allows the collation to be more than 8 ounces.

19. The quality of food at the collation: fish, warm fish, animal products. (Butler, p. 153; Metropolitan Catholic Almanac and Laity’s Directory, 1839, Baltimore; Villien, p. 312)

20. The consumption of both fish and flesh meat at the same meal. (Butler, p.163)

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