Fasting and abstinence in the Roman Catholic Church

Fasting and abstinence in the Roman Catholic Church

For Roman Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one's intake of food to one full meal a day. This may or may not be accompanied by abstinence from meat when eating.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that all people are obliged by God to perform some penance for their sins, and that these acts of penance are both personal and corporate. The purpose of fasting is spiritual focus, self discipline, imitation of Christ, and performing penance; it in no way stems from a concept that the material world is in some sense evil.

The Catholic Church requires Catholics to observe the discipline of abstaining at various times each year, especially during Lent. Abstinence is required throughout the year on Fridays, though the bishops' conferences in some areas allow other penitential acts (e.g., prayer, abstinence from another food, giving up an unhealthy or unnecessary habit). During Lent, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, both abstinence and fasting are required of Catholics who are not exempted for various reasons.

Contemporary Roman legislation is rooted in the 1966 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, and codified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Members of the Eastern Catholic Churches are obliged to follow the discipline of their own particular church.

The Catholic practice of abstaining from meat popularized the Friday fish fry.[1]


Western practice


The practice of penance during Lent, the time before Easter, has roots in the early Church. Besides Lent there were other penitential times customarily accompanied by fasting or abstinence. These included Advent, the Ember Days, the Rogation Days, Fridays throughout the year, sometimes Wednesdays and Saturdays also, and the day before some important feast days (called a vigil).

Under modern Catholic practice in the West, Lent is observed from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday evening (ending prior to the Mass of the Lord's Supper celebrated on Holy Thursday), Sundays included.[2] These days were at one time observed with a Black Fast of strictly no more than one meal, without meat, dairy, oil, or wine, taken after sunset. In the 14th century the meal was allowed at mid-day, and soon the practice of an evening collation (snack) became common. A morning collation was introduced in the 19th century. Fasting was still often accompanied by complete abstinence from meat, although this was not always the case.

In the early 20th century, Church law prescribed fasting throughout Lent, with abstinence only on Friday and Saturday. Some countries received dispensations: Rome in 1918 allowed the bishops of Ireland to transfer the Saturday obligation to Wednesday; in the United States, abstinence was not required on Saturday. The other weekdays were simply days of "fasting without abstinence." A similar practice (common in the United States) was called "partial abstinence", which allowed meat only once during the day at the main meal. There is nothing in current law which corresponds to "partial abstinence."

Advent is also considered a time of special self-examination, humility, and spiritual preparation in anticipation of the birth of Christ. Fridays and Saturdays in Advent were days of abstinence, and until early in the 20th century, the Fridays of Advent were also days of fasting.

The vigils observed included the Saturday before Pentecost, October 31 (the vigil of All Saints), December 24 (Christmas Eve), December 7 (the vigil of the Immaculate Conception) and August 14 (the vigil of the Assumption). These vigils all required fasting; some also required abstinence. If any of these fell on a Sunday, the vigil, but not the obligation of fasting, was moved to the Saturday before. (Some other liturgical days were also known as vigils but neither fasting nor abstinence was required, particularly the vigils of feasts of the Apostles and the Vigil of the Epiphany.) By 1959 in the United States, the fast for the vigil of Christmas was moved to December 23.

Ember days occurred four times a year. The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the ember week were days of fast and abstinence, though the Wednesday and Saturday were often only days of partial abstinence. In addition, Roman Catholics were required to abstain from meat (but not fast) on all other Fridays, unless the Friday coincided with a holy day of obligation.

The former regulations on abstinence obliged Roman Catholics starting as young as age seven, but there were many exceptions to the above regulations. Large classes of people were considered exempt from fasting and abstinence, not only the sick and those with physically demanding jobs, but also people traveling and students. The regulations were adapted to each nation, and so in most dioceses in America abstinence from meat was not required on the Friday after Thanksgiving, to accommodate any meat leftover from that US national holiday.

Contemporary application

Contemporary legislation is rooted in the 1966 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini. He recommended that fasting be appropriate to the local economic situation, and that all Catholics voluntarily fast and abstain. He also allowed that fasting and abstinence might be substituted with prayer and works of charity.

Current practice of fast and abstinence is regulated by Canons 1250-1253 of the 1983 code.[3] They specify that all Fridays throughout the year, and the time of Lent are penitential times throughout the entire Church. All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence on all Fridays unless they are solemnities. All adults (those who have attained the 'age of majority', which varies from country to country) are bound by law to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until the beginning of their sixtieth year.

Although the current Canon Law effective for the Western church does not specify the exact meaning of fasting, the traditional interpretation follows the earlier practice that on the days of mandatory fasting, Catholics may eat only one full meal during the day. Additionally, they may eat up to two small meals or snacks,[4] known as "collations". Church requirements on fasting only relate to solid food, not to drink, so Church law does not restrict the amount of water or other beverages - even alcoholic drinks - which may be consumed.

Under Canon 1253, the local norms for fasting and abstinence are determined by each episcopal conference. In some Western countries, Catholics have been encouraged to adopt non-dietary forms of abstinence during Lent. For example, in 2009 Monsignor Benito Cocchi, Bishop of Modena, urged young Catholics to give up text messaging for Lent.[5]

Republic of Ireland

On 25 November 2010 the Irish Bishops’ Conference published the resource leaflet Friday Penance. It followed from the March 2010 Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland from Pope Benedict XVI suggesting initiatives to support renewal in the Church in Ireland. He asked that Irish Catholics offer their Friday Penances “for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength,” and that fasting, prayer, reading of Scripture and works of mercy be offered in order to obtain healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland.

The leaflet states that Penance "arises from the Lord’s call to conversion and repentance" and describes that it is an "essential part of all genuine Christian living":

  • in memory of the passion and death of the Lord
  • as a sharing in Christ’s suffering
  • as an expression of inner conversion
  • as a form of reparation for sin

Friday Penance also explains why penance is important: “Declaring some days throughout the year as days of fast and abstinence (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) is meant to intensify penances of the Christian. Lent is the traditional season for renewal and penance but Catholics also observe each Friday of the year as days of penance. The link between Friday and penance is extremely ancient and is even reflected in the Irish language (Gaelic) word for Friday: An Aoine (The Fast).”

The leaflet suggests ways of fulfilling Friday penance such as abstaining from meat or alcohol, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or helping the poor, sick and lonely as well as other suggestions.

United States

The current regulations concerning Lenten fasting and abstinence for Roman Catholics in the United States generally are as follows.[6] [7]

  • Abstinence from all meat is to be observed by all Roman Catholics 14 years old and older on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays of Lent.
  • Fasting is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by all Roman Catholics who are 18 years of age but not yet 59.

For Roman Catholics whose health or ability to work would be negatively affected by fasting and/or abstinence, the regulations above don't apply. If a Friday in Lent coincides with a solemnity, the abstinence is not required. The bishop of a diocese can modify these rules for Roman Catholics in his diocese; for example, it is not uncommon for a bishop of a diocese in the United States to give dispensations from the normal Lenten regulations if St. Patrick's Day (March 17) falls on a Friday during Lent.

Since the Fridays outside Lent are specified as penitential days by universal church law, but abstinence is not specified by the US bishops, it is left to the individual Roman Catholic to choose the form this penance takes. Pastoral teachings have urged voluntary fasting during Lent and voluntary abstinence on the other Fridays of the year. From time to time the leadership of the church has considered restoring obligatory abstinence on all Fridays, not just those of Lent. However, the policy in the United States has not been changed.

Parishes in the United States often sponsor a fish fry during Lent.[8] In predominantly Roman Catholic areas, restaurants may adjust their menus during Lent by adding seafood items to the menu in an attempt to appeal to Roman Catholics.[9]

England and Wales

Current norms for England and Wales, issued by the Bishops' Conference in May 2011, re-introduced the expectation that all Catholics able to do so should abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, effective Friday, September 16, 2011.[10]

The previous norms, introduced in 1985, had given individual Catholics in England and Wales discretion to choose their own form of Friday penance from the following options:[11]

  • Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were explicitly identified as days of both fasting, and of abstinence from meat.
  • "Fasting means that the amount of food we eat is considerably reduced". The law of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday binds all Roman Catholics who are 18 years of age but not yet 59.
  • "Abstinence means that we give up a particular kind of food or drink or form of amusement" - all Catholics over 14, with no upper age limit, are to "abstain on Fridays from meat or some other food" or "perform some alternative work of penance" in one or more of the following ways:
    • by abstaining from meat or some other food;
    • by abstaining from alcoholic drink, smoking or some form of amusement;
    • by making the special effort involved in family prayer, taking part in the Mass, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or praying the Stations of the Cross;
    • by fasting from all food for a longer period than usual and perhaps giving what is saved in this way to the needy at home and abroad;
    • by making a special effort to help somebody who is poor, sick, old or lonely.

Eastern practice

To fast customarily means to only eat one meal during the day, and to avoid animal products. Fasting is viewed as one part of repentance and supporting a spiritual change of heart. Eastern Christians observe two major times of fasting, the "Great Fast" before Easter, and "Phillip's Fast" before the Nativity.

During the Great Fast, meat, eggs, dairy products, fish and oil are avoided.

The fast period before Christmas is called "Philip's Fast" because it begins after the feast day of St. Philip. Specific practices vary, but on some days during the week meat, dairy products and (in some countries) oil are avoided, while on other days there is no restriction. During approximately the last week before the Nativity, typically meat, dairy, eggs and oil are avoided on all days, meals are moderate in quantity, and no food is taken between meals.[12]

Eucharistic Fast

In addition to the fasts mentioned above, Roman Catholics must also observe the Eucharistic Fast, which involves taking nothing but water and medicines into the body for some time before receiving the Eucharist. In Church history, Jesus and Peter took the Eucharistic wine after supper (Luke 22:20 & 31). The earliest recorded regular practice was to eat at home before the Lord's Supper if one was hungry (I Corinthians 11:34). The next known ancient practice was to fast from midnight until Mass that day. As Masses after noon and in the evening became common in the West, this was soon modified to fasting for three hours. The latest Code of Canon Law reduced the Eucharistic Fast to the current one hour requirement for the Roman Rite. Particular law in some Eastern Catholic Churches also requires a one hour Eucharistic fast.


  1. ^ Carolyn Walkup (December 8, 2003). "You can take the girl out of Wisconsin, but the lure of its food remains". Nation's Restaurant News. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  2. ^ "General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, Chapter II-b, The Yearly Cycle". The Catholic Liturgical Library. Retrieved 2011-03-10.  The referenced site does not support linking to individual paragraphs; interested readers should scroll to part III of the linked page to find the norms regarding Lent.
  3. ^ "1983 Code of Canon Law". The Holy See. Retrieved 2011-11-19. 
  4. ^ Colin B. Donovan, STL. "The Holy Season of Lent". EWTN. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  5. ^ "To text is to sin". New Zealand Herald. 8 March 2009. 
  6. ^ US Conference of Catholic Bishops (November 18, 1966). "Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence". Retrieved 2011-11-19. 
  7. ^ US Conference of Catholic Bishops (February 29, 1984). "Canons 1252 And 1253 - Observance Of Fast And Abstinence (Memorandum to Bishops)". Retrieved 2011-11-19. 
  8. ^ Connie Mabin (March 2, 2007). "For Lent, Parishes Lighten Up Fish Fry". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  9. ^ Bill Carlino (February 19, 1990). "Seafood promos aimed to 'lure' Lenten observers". Nation's Restaurant News. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 
  10. ^ "Catholic Witness - Friday Penance". Statement of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, 13 May 2011. Retrieved 2011-11-19. 
  11. ^ "Fasting and Abstinence: Statement from the Bishops of England and Wales on Canons 1249-1253 (11985)". Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. Retrieved 2010-03-09. 
  12. ^ Our Lady of Fatima Byzantine Catholic Church. Retrieved 2009-02-25. 


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