We have now considered the first three precepts of the Church: 1) Attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days; 2) Confess one’s sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year, 3) Receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season. Now we move on to the fourth precept: Abstain from eating meat and observe the days of fasting established by the Church.
The thing that jumps out about this precept is that it doesn’t clearly indicate when to fast or abstain from meat There is a reason for this. The precepts, by their very nature, are meant to be universal. They are intended to be applicable in every time and place. However, the norms of fasting and abstinence can change both from place to place and over the course of time.
Most people know that, currently, in the United States, the church requires that the faithful fast only twice a year. Once on Ash Wednesday and again on Good Friday. Though we are obliged to fast only twice a year, the Church has always recommended this practice as a regular part of any authentic Christian spirituality. St. Therese of Lisieux, who died at the young age of 24 from tuberculosis, practiced some form of fasting on a daily basis and was named a doctor of the Church for her spirituality. In her, the Church gives us a model of how fasting can become a part of our everyday spiritual lives.
Fasting, in its most basic sense, simply means to deny oneself the quantity of food that we are accustomed to eating. In its broadest sense, fasting takes the form of any type of intentional selfdenial (television, dessert, music, surfing the web, etc.). However, for the sake of fulfilling the obligatory days of fasting given to us by the Church, fasting is defined as eating a single normal sized meal during the course of the day.
For those who are engaged in strenuous physical labor or who, for some other reason, find a single meal insufficient to maintain the strength necessary to fulfill daily obligations, two additional small snacks are permitted throughout the day.
In the United States, we have become unaccustomed to fasting and might find it difficult to limit ourselves to a single meal. However, the Church has established this norm because, over the centuries and from country to country, she has found that the vast majority of Christians were able to embrace this form of fasting without undue burden. Indeed, in many places, Christians will fast on nothing but water for one or two days at a time. An example of this is the traditional Paschal Fast. This consists of a two day water only fast, beginning on Holy Thursday night and ending on Saturday night following the Easter Vigil. This praiseworthy practice, though, less common nowadays, is still embraced by some of the faithful in this country and throughout the world.
Though some form of fasting is warmly recommended by the Church to all of her faithful as part of their daily spiritual lives, the law of fasting as described above is only binding on those Catholics who are between the ages of 18 and 59. Even within these ages, the faithful are excused from the fast for a variety of reasons, including those who are ill or otherwise compromised in their mental or physical health.
So as not to become overly caught up on the details governing the norms of fasting, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves why we fast. Though there are other reasons, I will only mention two here: 1) fasting is the way by which we pray in and through our bodies, 2) by fasting, we model our lives after the life of Christ, our Lord and God, who himself both fasted and prayed.
Praised be His name, now and forever!