A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the second Precept of the Church on going to confession at least once a year, I set it in the context of the third Precept: Reception of Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season. I feel like my explanation that week covered this precept well, so let’s address the final remaining Precept which states: Observance of the days of fast and abstinence.
When we hear these two terms, fasting and abstinence, it is likely that our minds go immediately to the season of Lent. Perhaps you have seen the Lenten regulations that we publish from the diocese each year. They are as follows:
- ABSTINENCE – Everyone 14 years of age and over is bound to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent.
- FAST – Everyone 18 years of age and under 59 is required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
On these two days of fast and abstinence, only one full meatless meal is permitted. Two other meatless meals, sufficient to maintain strength may be taken according to each person’s needs, but together these two should not equal another full meal. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids (including milk and fruit juices) are allowed.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, there is another important point about which many Catholics are unaware. We turn first to the universal law of the Church found in the Code of Canon Law:
Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. (Can. 1251)
In a statement from 1966, the US Bishops give a nice commentary on the reason for this law when they write:
Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.
This means that every Friday, unless it is a Solemnity, is a day to abstain from meat. But the Code provides the following important stipulation:
The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast. (Can 1253)
Here in the United States, it has been decided that Friday abstinence can be exercised in other ways than not eating meat. While the US Bishops praise and give first place to the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays, they leave room to choose an alternative penitential practice, such as abstaining from alcohol. They also offer a helpful commentary which provides some insight into another way of observing Friday:
It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.
So if you are not doing anything penitential, sacrificial, or charitable on Fridays, now is a good time to start! And if you find it hard to think of something, remember the Church’s recommendation of abstaining from meat as a worthwhile way of remembering the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on Good Friday.