Hello Rosary Lovers! In this post, we will look at how to fast as a Catholic.
Catholics Have to Fast
Catholicism is unique in Christianity in that Catholics are the only group of Christians who have to fast. Protestants don’t have to fast. Orthodox Christians (generally) don’t have to fast.
Catholics have always had to fast. Fasting has always been a requirement. This is because self-control is necessary for salvation. Titus 2:11-14 says:
For the grace of God our Saviour hath appeared to all men;
Instructing us, that, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly, and justly, and godly in this world,
Looking for the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ,
Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and might cleanse to himself a people acceptable, a pursuer of good works.
Here, the apostle Paul tells us that one of the ways Christ came to save us was by making us self-controlled/sober. To live ‘soberly’.
Without self-control, we cannot enter heaven. And fasting from food is a crucial element of self-control.
Differing Requirements in Different Catholic Rites
There are actually 24 Catholic Churches in the world, all in union with the Pope of Rome. All of these Churches make up the universal ‘Catholic Church’.
The biggest by far is the Latin Church, or the Latin rite – what many call ‘the Roman Catholic Church’.
There are 23 much smaller ones, all of which are Eastern, called collectively the Eastern Catholic Churches.
It is very important for Catholics and non-Catholics to know about the existence of these Eastern Catholic Churches, since they do things sometimes very differently to the Latin Church or Roman Catholicism.
This shows the universality of Catholicism. We don’t all ‘wear the same clothes and talk the same way’. Catholicism is a religion for the world, not for Westerners only.
One of the ways Eastern Catholics differ from Roman Catholics is in fasting.
As can be seen in the link, Ukrainian Catholics are expected to abstain from meat during 4 seasons of the year, as well as every Friday. This specific and hefty schedule of fasting reflects the Eastern Orthodox tradition from which the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church originates.
The Latin Church has a different set of requirements, but Roman Catholics are still expected to fast. Here are the requirements for Roman Catholics in the United States.
Here is what the Canons of the Latin Church say on the matter of fasting for Latin Catholics.
In short, Roman Catholics in the US must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and every Friday in Lent.
Almost everywhere else in the world, Roman Catholics are expected to abstain from meat also every Friday of the year.
For some reason that I haven’t quite been able to work out, Roman Catholics in the United States are exempt from having to abstain from meat on Fridays, unless they are Fridays of Lent.
The age Catholics are expected to abstain from meat is 14 onwards. There doesn’t seem to be an upper limit, so Roman Catholics must always fast from meat once they’ve hit 14.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are unique days in that they are fasts of abstinance from meat, AND also fast days, strictly speaking.
By using the word ‘fast’, the Church means that on these two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), Catholics between the ages of 18-59 MUST (unless they have very good reason) eat only one full meal.
To help them not lose too much strength, the Church permits them to eat two smaller meals on these days also, so long as the two smaller meals added together are not equal to the size of the main full meal.
The reason behind this obligation seems to be that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the two pillar days of Lent. Lent is a fasting season.
Rather than obligating Catholics to fast like this everyday in Lent (which some Catholics still do today), the Church in her mercy says it is enough for us to just do this on these two bookend days of Lent.
The Church seems to be implying here that Lent itself ought to be a time of fasting or abstinence, and it is recommended that Catholics also try to give something up for Lent. However, the Church does not demand this of her faithful.
How to Keep a Good Fast Day
There are two very good ways to faithfully keep these fasts on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The first is to only eat two meals on these days, and to skip a meal. That way, you ensure that you only eat one full meal, and the other meal with automatically be smaller than the main full meal, and so you are keeping the fast.
Even if you do this, let us keep in mind not to stuff ourselves full of food during both meals, even though one meal with ‘automatically’ be smaller than the other. The Canon law commands us to only eat one full meal, so the other meal ought not to be really a full or big meal.
Nevertheless, if we are only having 2 meals a day on the Fast Days, then we are free to eat one full meal, and a substantial other meal to help get us through the day.
Let us also remember not to be unkind to ourselves, especially if we work a job (as I do) that often involves a lot of manual labour. There is no virtue in being unnecessarily hungry on these days, that’s precisely why the Church permits us to eat three times on these days.
The other way to keep a good fast day might be to eat one main meal and 2 smaller meals, but for one of those smaller meals to be something very simple, like bread and water. This way, we will have one main meal, one tiny meal (e.g. bread and water), and can have a more substantial small meal.
It’s worth remembering that most people everyday eat one main meal, a decent lunch and a breakfast. This is often more or less what is required during the fast days, so if you simply replace the lunch with bread and water, you’ll be keeping the fast perfectly.
Or if you skip breakfast, and just have lunch and then your main meal later, you’ll also be doing well.
Alternatively, of course, you could skip breakfast and have your main meal at lunchtime, and then a smaller meal in the evening.
My Own Experience of Fasting in Catholicism
I come from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic tradition. And I loved keeping these fasts. Although more was required of us than of Latin Catholics, I found it easier in one sense, in that you don’t really have to ‘count’ how much you are eating.
This is because in the Ukrainian Catholic tradition, the emphasis is much more on abstaining from meat for prolonged periods, such as during much of Lent, than ensuring you eat less actual food on fast days.
It is assumed in the Ukrainian Catholic tradition that by abstaining from meat for Lent and during other fasting seasons of the year (such as the Nativity fast, also about 40 days), one will automatically be eating less food generally during the Lentern season. This is because meat occupies such a large part of the diet of most westerners.
Personally, I prefer this Ukrainian emphasis on abstaining from meat for weeks at a time, to the Latin emphasis of eating only one full meal on Fast days. That’s just me.
These days, I attend a Latin Church and have no access to a Ukrainian Catholic parish. So I and my family follow the Latin Rite, including the Latin calendar and fasts.
This was one of the biggest changes in me ceasing to be part of a Ukrainian Catholic parish. They use a different calendar and fast differently.
Anyway, I hope this post has been helpful.