Your Lenten Guide for Fasting & Abstinence, According to Catholic Teaching
Ash Wednesday is Feb. 22, alongside church services with the mark of the ashes.
During these services, faithful are often marked by the practices of fasting and abstinence during Lent. Below, you will find the answers to many common questions surrounding these spiritual practices!
First, let’s look at the meaning of fasting and abstinence during this liturgical season.
Fasting is a form of penance and spiritual discipline.
According to the USCCB, “When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.”
Abstinence refers to the absence of meat (mammals) or fowl. This is because traditionally, meat was more expensive and considered a luxury.
At one point, Catholics abstained from eating meat every Friday of the year, but U.S. bishops now allow Catholics to instead substitute another act of charity or sacrifice.
Next, when are each of these practices required, and who is under an obligation to do so?
The Church obliges Catholics to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In addition, Fridays during Lent are required days of abstinence.
The Church requires adults ages 18-59 to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
According to the USCCB, “The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.”
However, the Church exempts certain groups from these requirements and asks them to make an alternative sacrifice.
Pregnant or breastfeeding women are in this category.
The USCCB states, “the physically or mentally ill, including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes…In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.”
Lastly, why do we fast and abstain during Lent? What is the purpose?
There are many reasons we are called to fasting and abstinence during the season of Lent.
The largest reason is to grow closer to Jesus by imitating his temptation in the desert. By uniting our sufferings and temptation with His, we can better participate in His death and resurrection.
The practice is also rooted in scripture!
The prophet Daniel explains, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).
The Book of Tobit says, “Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness” (Tobit 12:8)
Finally, the Book of Psalms says, “When I humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach.” (Psalm 69:10).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the importance of this practice:
CCC 1434: The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: efforts at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity “which covers a multitude of sins.”
CCC 1438: The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).
CCC 2043: The fourth precept (“You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepares us for the liturgical feasts and helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.
Here’s a reminder from St Thomas Aquinas to motivate your journey:
“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”
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[See also: Secrets of the Saints: The Forgotten Spiritual Power of Fasting]
[See also: Fasting: What the Church Actually Requires Will Probably Surprise You]
Caroline Perkins is the Brand Content Editor at Church POP. She lives in Denver with her husband and three children. She is also founder and designer of Be Still By Caroline and the author of "ABC Get to Know the Saints with Me!".
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