The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 33)
Pillars of Catholic Penitential Practice: Fasting
Prayer, fasting, almsgiving – these acts of penance come to us directly from Christ himself (Matt. 6:1-8, 16-18). There is no Christian life without repentance, and there is no repentance that is not realized in penitential actions of abstinence, generous giving, and prayer. Jesus teaches us that by these secret disciplines, we enter into intimacy with his Father in Heaven who “sees in secret” (Matt. 6:4, 18). The three pillars stand together—contracting the boundaries of our consumption, expanding the boundaries of our generosity, and enlarging our capacity to pray. I start this three part reflection with fasting.
Jesus simply assumes that his followers will fast (Matt. 6:1). And he himself, during his trial in the wilderness, prepared for his ministry and coming sacrifice with a time of severe fasting. To encourage the faithful (and provide at least a minimum standard of practice), certain days and seasons are marked by required abstinence and fasting.
Friday, the Universal Day of Penance. . . .
For the Christian, every Friday partakes of the mystery of Good Friday. Through the whole of the year, we prepare for the coming Sunday by acts of penance on Friday. As you know, the mandate was once very simple: a Catholic who ate meat on Fridays did so on pain of sin. Now, as became effective on November 27, 1966, the mandate is changed. The bishops did not alter the penitential character of Friday. All Catholics age 14 years and older are to engage in penitential actions on Friday, through some form of fasting and acts of mercy. What changed is that the bishops no longer specified abstinence from meat. They now rely on you and me to choose a meaningful Friday abstinence. Why the change? We will come back to that below.
The Lenten Observance . . . .
The Friday mandate has changed, except for every Friday in Lent. All are to abstain from meat on all Fridays of Lent. Two days of the year—Ash Wednesday and Good Friday—are days of abstinence and fasting. On these two days, we are not only to abstain from eating meat, but to eat only one meal (or two very light meals). Once again, the abstinence rule holds for all those 14 years and older. But the mandated fast applies only to those age 14 through 60. Pregnant and nursing mothers and those who are ill are not required to fast.
Simple Rules or Love's Disciplines?
Why have the rules changed from time to time, most recently in 1966? If you read the Pastoral Statements of the bishops (the 1983 statements of the U.S. bishops is especially useful), there is no doubt about the bishop's hopes and intentions. They desired, not a relaxing of penitential practice, but an intensification of penitential devotion. It's easy enough to understand what the bishop's were worried about. They desired, not rule-keeping, but conversion of heart. They worried about the minimalism that always attends the rule-keeping mentality—like the “observance” of abstinence from meat by means of feeding on large portions of white-wine clam sauce over pasta! They hoped for that spirit articulated so elegantly by Blessed John Henry Newman. “Let not the year go round and round, without a break and interruption in its circle of pleasures. Give back some of God's gifts to God, that you may safely enjoy the rest..”. Did the bishops fail? Were they simply naïve? Well, that will depend on us.
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