Written by Fr. Francis Spirago; Edited by Fr. Richard Clarke, SJ
with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, New York, 1927





By the second commandment of the Church the precept of fasting and of abstinence is laid upon us. Fasting and abstaining are very ancient. Even in Paradise it was enjoined upon man to abstain from the fruit of one tree: moreover, certain meats were forbidden to the Jews; pork, for instance (Lev. xi.). On the day of Propitiation the Jews were not permitted to taste food for twenty-four hours. Our Lord fasted forty days; so did Moses and Elias before Him; and St. John Baptist, the Precursor, fasted most rigorously. The Church has good reasons for laying similar obligations upon the faithful.

The laws of the Church in regard to fasting and abstinence. are in reality very strict; they have, however, been largely relaxed by the bishops to suit the exigencies of time and place.

These laws were originally so stringent that on the fast days not only was abstinence from flesh-meat enjoined, but milk, eggs, and butter were also prohibited; and no food was to be taken before sundown. But owing to the increase of constitutional weakness, and still more because of the spread of religious indifference in the course of centuries, the rule has been more and more relaxed. Bishops are empowered to prescribe, each for his own diocese, on what days meat is permitted. Hence the rule varies in different dioceses, and it is well to attend carefully to the regulations of one's own diocese published at the beginning of each Lent.

There are three divisions of the present law: (1) Abstinence alone; (2) Fast and abstinence combined; (3) Fast alone.
In the second commandment of the Church we are ordered to abstain on all Fridays of the year; to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday, on the Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, on the Ember days; on the vigils of certain feasts; and to fast o. all the other days of Lent.  [Presently in the US, Fridays outside of Lent are still days of penance, but one is given the option whether or not to choose abstinence from meat or some other sacrifice one substitutes for this. Most Catholics are unaware this is the case because of lax preaching on the part of pastors and or misunderstanding from poor catechesis. Because the Lord died on the Cross on Friday, this is a day of mandatory penance throughout the year. - The Web Master.]

1. We are forbidden to eat meat on Friday, because on that day Our Lord died for us.

Not only is meat prohibited, but all dishes in the preparation of which it enters. Fish, turtle, and shell-fish may be eaten, also eggs, milk, and butter, in almost all countries. The Church has forbidden the use of meat because Christ sacrificed His flesh for us; also because meat is an article of food easily dispensed with, and yet what men generally like best. Another reason is to remind us that the lusts of the flesh are to be resisted (Gal. v. 19), and these are fostered by eating meat. Some people quote Our Lord's words: "Not those things which go into the mouth defile the man" (Matt. xv. 11), as opposed to this prohibition; but He also said: "The things that come from the heart, those things defile the man" (Matt. xv. 18). Disobedience to the Church comes from the heart, and this it is which defiles, not the actual meat. [Emphasis in bold added.] If a holy day of obligation falls on a Friday, meat is allowed, because Our Lord would not have us abstain at a time of rejoicing (Matt. ix. 15).

In early ages the use of meat was also forbidden on Saturdays.

The original object of this prohibition was to suppress the observance of the Sabbath day, which still lingered among Christian converts. It is now done away with; yet Christians often impose some restriction upon their amusements on Saturday, in view of better sanctifying the morrow.

2. During the forty days of Lent only one full meal is to be taken, as a partial imitation of Our Lord's fast of forty days, and as a suitable preparation for celebrating the festival of Easter. [See the current law for Lenten fasting here.]

The forty days of Lent begin on Ash Wednesday, and last until Holy Saturday noon; the Sundays alone are not fasting days.

The Lenten fast was instituted by the Apostles in commemoration of Our Lord's fast in the wilderness (Matt. iv.). It is a time of penance and of sorrow for sin; hence violet vestments are worn at the altar. It is natural to fast when we are in grief (Matt. ix. 16). We ought also during Lent to meditate upon Our Lord's Passion, which is commemorated in Holy Week, and which usually forms the theme of the Lenten sermons. By fasting and meditation upon Our Lord's Passion we most readily awake within ourselves the grace of contrition and consciousness of sin. The forty days of Lent are also a preparation for the Easter festival. In early times the fast was much more rigorous; the primitive Christians ate no meat all the time, and did not break their fast until the evening. Even in the Middle Ages meat was prohibited; those who ate it were not admitted to the Paschal Communion (Council of 'Toledo, 653). Those who broke this law were punished 'by the secular authority on the ground of contempt for religion. The rule of fasting is made very easy nowadays. All that the Church requires of us is to take only one full meal in the course of the day; a slight refection is permitted in the morning, besides the evening collation. The principal meal may be taken in the evening and the collation at noon, or vice versa. Eating between meals is forbidden, but drinking is allowed provided it is not nourishing. No one is required to keep the fast of Lent who has not attained the age of twenty-one years or who has begun the sixtieth year.

3. We must likewise fast and abstain on the Ember days, in order to implore almighty God to send us good priests, and to thank Him for the benefits received during the past quarter. [Ember days' requirements have been abolished today. - The Web Master.]

The Ember days are three in number, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, at the commencement of each quarter (quatuor tempora); these are the usual seasons for ordination to the priesthood.

The Ember days of the winter season faIl in the third week of Advent, of the spring quarter in the second week of Lent; in summer in Whitsunweek and in autumn in the third week in September. The Jews were accustomed to fast four times a year (Zach. viii. 19). Christ enjoined upon us the duty of praying for good priests, in the words: "The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that He send forth laborers into His harvest" (Matt. ix. 37, 38).

4. We are also bound to fast and abstain on the vigils of certain feasts, in order the better to prepare ourselves for celebrating those feasts. [Also remitted in the US in modern times. - Ibid.]

The better our preparation, the more abundant are the graces we obtain on the feast itself. The early Christians were accustomed to assemble together on the eves of great festivals, to pass the night in watching and prayer, and in assisting at the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This they did because had they held the services in the daytime, they would have been liable to disturbance on the part of the pagans. Our Lord Himself used often to pass whole nights in prayer (Luke vi. 12). When at a later period the attendance at the nightly services fell off, and inconveniences arose, the Popes judged it advisable to transfer the celebration of the vigil to the daytime. The vigil of Christmas is the only one in which the nightly celebration has been retained up to the present time; of all the others nothing survives but the past.

These Vigils are the days preceding the four great festivals of Christmas, Pentecost, the Assumption and All Saints' Day.

5. It is by no means the desire of the Church that we should fast to the injury of our health, or that we should thereby be hindered from performing the duties of our station.

1. Consequently the following persons are permitted to eat meat on Friday or other days of abstinence:

1. The sick, the weak, those who are recovering from illness for whom a conscientious doctor orders meat diet; 2. Those whose health requires meat diet, or who cannot perform their duties without it; 3. The poor who live on the food given them; 4. Servants, boarders, travelers, soldiers and sailors, who can get no other than meat diet. Servants and boarders must, however, try to find another place, where they can keep the laws of the Church. It is allowed to take fish at the same meal when meat is permitted.

If you are in doubt as to your obligation of fasting or abstaining, ask your pastor or confessor. He can dispense for good reason, and will tell you what to do.

In the United States the following customs prevail: On every day of Lent except Wednesdays, Fridays, Ember Saturday and Holy Saturday forenoon, meat is allowed once a day to those bound to fast; persons not bound to fast may eat meat on those days as often as they wish. Most of the bishops grant a dispensation to laboring classes and their families on all days of fast or abstinence of the year except Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Wednesday in Holy Week, Holy Saturday forenoon and the vigil of Christmas. When any member of such a family lawfully uses that privilege, all the other members of the household may avail themselves of it also, but those who are bound to fast may not eat meat more than once a day.

2. The following are dispensed from fasting (i e., from taking only one full meal a day):

1. The sick, the weak, and those who are recovering from illness; 2. Those who do hard work and cannot, if they fast, fulfill the duties of their state of life; 3. Those who are too poor to buy strengthening food for their chief meal; 4. Those who are under twenty-one or who have passed their fifty-ninth year. Young people who have not done growing require more than one full meal a day; of invalids we have already spoken. In the class who are engaged in active and laborious work, we include those who exert themselves for the temporal or spiritual welfare of their fellow-men, such as confessors, preachers, catechists, schoolmasters, nurses, physicians, magistrates, etc., who frequently require to take something to sustain their strength. When the influenza was so prevalent, a general dispensation from fasting was granted. The command to keep ourselves in health is given by God, and is a law of our nature; whereas the precept of fasting is laid on us by the Church; and the law of God is paramount above the law of the Church. [Ibid.] Those who cannot fast should substitute for it some other good work. Confessors have ordinarily power to dispense from fasting, and impose some other good work, prayers or alms, in its place.

3. No one ought to carry fasting to an excess, for what God requires from us is our reasonable service (Rom. xii. 1).

He who overdoes fasting is like a coachman who whips his horses into a gallop, and runs the risk of upsetting the carriage; or like an overladen vessel, that is easily capsized. Even some of the Saints went to an excess in fasting, and afterwards much regretted it. No one ought to venture to do more than the rule prescribes, without the advice of his confessor. Obedience is far better than self-willed piety.
[Ibid.] As a rule it is preferable to be temperate every day of the week than to fast rigorously on one or two days. Fasting is intended to destroy the evil lusts of the body, not the body itself: We must deal, with our bodies as a parent deals with his child; he does not chastise him when he is docile, but when he is disobedient. Fasting,
like medicine, must be used in moderation or it becomes injurious.

6. Fasting is beneficial both for the soul and the body.

The intellectual powers are sharpened by moderation in our food. At Nabuchodonosor's court Daniel ate pulse [seeds and grains - the Web Master.] and drank water, and he surpassed in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom all the wise men of the kingdom (Dan. i). By fasting the soul is fortified and enabled both to bring the body into subjection (1 Cor. ix. 27), and to overcome the temptations of the devil. The fortress surrenders when the garrison is starved out; so the body, under stress of hunger, yields to the will and the understanding. Our bodies have to be tamed like wild animals. The devil regards the flesh as his best ally; he knows that the enemy at a man's fireside can do him the worst and the greatest harm. By fasting we put our foe in irons, so that he cannot wage war against us. The bird of prey loves a fat prize, he does not make the half-starved one his victim. 
The athlete who "refraineth himself in all things" (1 Cor. ix. 25), in preparation for the contest, is most likely to conquer. A high degree of virtue is also acquired by means of fasting. It inclines man to prayer; it helps him to overcome himself, to be gentle, patient. and chaste; it makes him resemble the Angels, who neither eat nor drink. [Ibid.] In the same proportion that the animal part of our nature is lessened, our spiritual nature is invigorated; like the scales of a balance, as one goes down, the other rises. Our health is improved and our life prolonged by abstemiousness. It is the parent of good health. The hermits in the The ban desert fasted rigorously and they lived to be a hundred years old. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, reached the age of one hundred ,and forty years; this he attributed to the fact that he never fully satisfied his appetite. The Wise Man says: "He that is temperate shall prolong his life" (Ecclus. xxxvii. 34); "a moderate man also enjoys wholesome and sound sleep" (Ecclus. xxxi. 24). By fasting we obtain from God the pardon of our sins; witness the Ninivites when they fasted; by it we also work off some of our Purgatory. God hears and answers the prayers of those who fast; He heard the prayers of the centurion, who fasted until the ninth hour (Acts x. 30), and sent an Angel to him. When Holofernes laid siege to Bethulia, the inhabitants betook themselves to prayer and fasting, and they were delivered in a marvelous manner by Judith. St. Augustine calls fasting and almsgiving the two pinions of prayer. Fasting is a means of earning extraordinary graces, for God has ever been wont to recompense it with singular favors. After Moses had fasted, he was admitted to the honor of conversing with God upon Sinai. After Elias' long fast, God appeared to him upon Mount Horeb (3 Kings xix.). He who fasts, grows more and more spiritual; he is in a measure divinized, hence God vouchsafes to hold intercourse with him (Rodriguez). Fasting is rewarded after death. Moses and Elias were present at Our Lord's transfiguration, because they alone of all the patriarchs had fasted forty days as He did. Hence we see that glory is reserved in a future life for those who fast in this world. In the Preface for Lent the Church sings: "Who by a bodily fast restrainest vices, upliftest our minds, and grantest strength and rewards."

7. Abstinence from food is only pleasing to God if, at the same time, we refrain from sin and perform good works.

Fasting is not in itself an excellent thing (1 Cor. viii. 8), but only as a means whereby the suppression of our vices and the practice of virtue is facilitated.
[Ibid.] How does it profit a man if he abstains from meat, and by his calumnies destroys his neighbor's reputation? Such a one may be compared to a whited sepulchre, outwardly beautiful, but foul within (Matt. xxiii. 27). The devil does not eat, yet he is unceasingly employed in doing evil. Fasting without prayer is like a lamp without oil, because we only fast to pray better. Fasting without almsgiving is a field without seed; it fosters the weeds of avarice. He fasts for himself, not for God, who does not give to the poor what he denies to himself.