Are Catholics Still Bound By Canon Law to Fasting and Abstinence?
Are Catholics Only So Bound During Lent?
Code of Canon Law (1983):
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.
Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
So, the "Friday Fast" for Catholics for all Fridays is still in effect it just doesn't have to be meat, IF your Episcopal Conference has prescribed something else. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) states:
Fridays Throughout the Year In memory of Christ's suffering and death, the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year a penitential day. All of us are urged to prepare appropriately for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday.
This is a little vague, but does state that it has been prescribed that each Friday throughout the year is indeed a penitential day (as does current Canon Law). Then the allusion to preparation for that "weekly Easter" says a lot. The Friday before Easter is Good Friday, a day of complete abstinence from meat, and a day of fasting (one full or regular meal). Therefore, to "prepare appropriately" every Friday throughout the year should be a day of fasting and complete abstinence of meat. Unless your Episcopal Conference has specifically stated an alternative to meat - it should still be meat. To deliberately ignore the applicable precept in Canon Law, and/or the bishop's "urging" would constitute a grave sin.
Are all Catholics required to participate in Friday penance? Yes! It is Church Law that we do!
The Church has made it VERY easy to fulfill this request, not that offering up meat on one day per week is really all that difficult, so Catholics really have no excuse not to be doing some form of penance on "all Fridays" throughout the year.
It is the position of this Catholic that we should still adhere to the traditional fast from meat, even if a "lesser requirement" is "available." Bare in mind, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday there is no alternative to meat - all Latin Rite Catholics MUST abstain from meat on these days, under the penalty of mortal sin. Remember, even if your EC has offered an alternative, it is still an alternative and you can choose to adhere to the tradition of offering up meat on Fridays. And you DO sin if you aren't doing something on ALL FRIDAYS throughout the year in accordance with Ecclesial Law and your Episcopal Conference.
A friend of mine challenged that my position was too strong and she had contacts in Rome and in fact was soon taking a trip to Rome and would directly ask some officials there about my thesis. Rome's response was to look at Paenitemini, Issued by Pope Paul VI on February 17, 1966. That document can be found at:
Therefore, the following is declared and established:
IV. To the law of abstinence those are bound who have completed their 14th year of age. To the law of fast those of the faithful are bound who have completed their 21st year and up until the beginning of their 60th year. As regards those of a lesser age, pastors of souls and parents should see to it with particular care that they are educated to a true sense of penitence.
There's much more in this encyclical, but do note the Holy Father's words, "Therefore, the following is declared and established:" And follow that with the rest of what was stated in the original article (below). In essense, at least one person who has challenged my statement that it is a sin to not do penance (or whatever your Episcopal Conference has determined) has now acknowledged that it is indeed a sin, and one that "binds gravely."
Catholics cannot avoid this precept of "Divine Law."
Now, back to the original article:
The Celebration of Lent
Ash Wednesday marks the onset of the Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence. It is also known as the 'Day of Ashes'. So called because on that day at church the faithful have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross.
The name 'Day of Ashes' comes from "Dies Cinerum" in the Roman Missal and is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary. The concept originated by the Roman Catholics somewhere in the 6th century. Though the exact origin of the day is not clear, the custom of marking the head with ashes on this Day is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604).
In the Old Testament ashes were found to have used for two purposes: as a sign of humility
and mortality; and as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. The Christian connotation for ashes in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday has also been taken from this Old Testament biblical custom./
Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon church in the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the Western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091.
Originally the use of ashes to betoken penance was a matter of private devotion. Later it became part of the official rite for reconciling public penitents. In this context, ashes on the penitent served as a motive for fellow Christians to pray for the returning sinner and to feel sympathy for him. Still later, the use of ashes passed into its present rite of beginning the penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the cor contritum quasi cinis of the "Dies Irae") is of earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men.
Putting a 'cross' mark on the forehead was in imitation of the spiritual mark or seal that is put on a Christian in baptism. This is when the newly born Christian is delivered from slavery to sin and the devil, and made a slave of righteousness and Christ (Rom. 6:3-18).
This can also be held as an adoption of the way 'righteousness' are described in the book of Revelation, where we come to know about the servants of God. The reference to the sealing of the servants of God for their protection in Revelation is an allusion to a parallel passage in Ezekiel, where Ezekiel also sees a sealing of the servants of God for their protection:
"And the LORD said to him [one of the four cherubim], 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark [literally, "a tav"] upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.' And to the others he said in my hearing, 'Pass through the city after him, and smite; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity; slay old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one upon whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.' So they began with the elders who were before the house." (Ezekiel 9:4-6)
Unfortunately, like most modern translations, the one quoted above (the Revised Standard Version, which we have been quoting thus far), is not sufficiently literal. What it actually says is to place a tav on the foreheads of the righteous inhabitants of Jerusalem. Tav is one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and in ancient script it looked like the Greek letter chi, which happens to be two crossed lines (like an "x") and which happens to be the first letter in the word "Christ" in Greek Christos). The Jewish rabbis commented on the connection between tav and chi and this is undoubtedly the mark Revelation has in mind when the servants of God are sealed in it.
The early Church Fathers seized on this tav-chi-cross-christos connection and expounded it in their homilies, seeing in Ezekiel a prophetic foreshadowing of the sealing of Christians as servants of Christ. It is also part of the background to the Catholic practice of making the sign of the cross, which in the early centuries (as can be documented from the second century on) was practiced by using one's thumb to furrow one's brow with a small sign of the cross, like Catholics do today at the reading of the Gospel during Mass.
MESSAGE OF THE HOLY FATHER
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. We are preparing to follow the path of Lent, which will lead us to the solemn celebration of the central mystery of faith, the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. We are preparing for the favourable time which the Church offers the faithful so that they may contemplate the work of salvation accomplished by our Lord on the Cross. The heavenly Father’s saving plan was completed in the free and total gift to us of the only begotten Son. “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10:18), Jesus declares, leaving no doubt that he decides to sacrifice his own life for the salvation of the world. In confirmation of so great a gift of love, the Redeemer goes on: “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
Lent, the providential time for conversion, helps us to contemplate this stupendous mystery of love. It is a return to the roots of our faith, so that by pondering the measureless gift of grace which is Redemption, we cannot fail to realize that all has been given to us by God’s loving initiative. In order to meditate upon this aspect of the mystery of salvation, I have chosen as the theme for this year’s Lenten Message the Lord’s words: “You received without paying, give without pay” (Mt 10:8).
2. God has freely given us his Son: who has deserved or could ever deserve such a privilege? Saint Paul says: “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, but they are justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom 3:23-24). In his infinite mercy God loved us, not permitting himself to be blocked by the grievous state of separation to which man had been consigned by sin. He graciously stooped down to our weakness, and made it the cause of a new and still more wondrous outpouring of his love. The Church does not cease to proclaim this mystery of infinite goodness, exalting God’s free choice and his desire not to condemn man but to draw him back into communion with himself.
“You received without paying, give without pay”. May these words of the Gospel echo in the heart of all Christian communities on their penitential pilgrimage to Easter. May Lent, recalling the mystery of the Lord’s Death and Resurrection, lead all Christians to marvel in their heart of hearts at the greatness of such a gift. Yes! We have received without pay. Is not our entire life marked by God’s kindness? The beginning of life and its marvellous development: this is a gift. And because it is gift, life can never be regarded as a possession or as private property, even if the capabilities we now have to improve the quality of life can lead us to think that man is the “master” of life. The achievements of medicine and biotechnology can sometimes lead man to think of himself as his own creator, and to succumb to the temptation of tampering with “the tree of life” (Gn 3:24).
It is also worth repeating here that not everything that is technically possible is morally acceptable. Scientific work aimed at securing a quality of life more in keeping with human dignity is admirable, but it must never be forgotten that human life is a gift, and that it remains precious even when marked by suffering and limitations. A gift to be accepted and to be loved at all times: received without pay and to be placed without pay at the service of others.
3. In setting before us the example of Christ offering himself for us on Calvary, Lent helps us in a unique way to understand that life is redeemed in him. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus renews our life and makes us sharers in the divine life which draws us into the intimate life of God and enables us to experience his love for us. This is a sublime gift, which the Christian cannot fail to proclaim with joy. In his Gospel, Saint John writes: “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). This life is passed on to us in Baptism, and we must nourish it constantly by responding to it faithfully, both individually and communally, through prayer, the celebration of the Sacraments and evangelical witness.
Since we have received this life freely, we must in turn offer it freely to our brothers and sisters. This is what Jesus asked of the disciples when he sent them out as his witnesses in the world: “You received without paying, give without pay”. And the first gift to be given is the gift of a holy life, bearing witness to the freely given love of God. May the Lenten journey be for all believers an unceasing summons to enter more deeply into this special vocation of ours. As believers, we must be open to a life marked by “gratuitousness”, by the giving of ourselves unreservedly to God and neighbour.
4. “What do you have,” Saint Paul asks, “that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7). The demand which follows this recognition is that of loving our brothers and sisters, and of dedicating ourselves to them. The more needy they are, the more urgent the believer’s duty to serve them. Does not God permit human need so that by responding to the needs of others we may learn to free ourselves from our egoism and to practise authentic Gospel love? The command of Jesus is clear: “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:46). The world prizes human relationships based on self-interest and personal gain, and this fosters an egocentric vision of life, in which too often there is no room for the poor and weak. Every person, even the least gifted, must be welcomed and loved for themselves, regardless of their qualities and defects. Indeed, the greater their hardship, the more they must be the object of our practical love. This is the love to which the Church, through her countless institutions, bears witness in accepting responsibility for the sick, the marginalized, the poor and the exploited. In this way, Christians become apostles of hope and builders of the civilization of love.
It is highly significant that Jesus spoke the words “You received without paying, give without pay” as he sent the Apostles out to spread the Gospel of salvation, which is his first and foremost gift to humanity. Christ wants his Kingdom, which is already close at hand (cf. Mt 10:5ff.), to be spread through gestures of gratuitous love accomplished by his disciples. This is what the Apostles did in the early days of Christianity, and those who met them saw them as bearers of a message greater than themselves. In our own day too the good done by believers becomes a sign, and often an invitation to believe. When, like the Good Samaritan, Christians respond to the needs of their neighbour, theirs is never merely material assistance. It is always a proclamation of the Kingdom as well, and speaks of the full meaning of life, hope and love.
5. Dear Brothers and Sisters! Let this be how we prepare to live this Lent: in practical generosity towards the poorest of our brothers and sisters! By opening our hearts to them, we realize ever more deeply that what we give to others is our response to the many gifts which the Lord continues to give to us. We have received without paying, let us give without pay!
What better time is there than Lent for offering this testimony of gratuitousness which the world so badly needs? In the very love which God has for us, there lies the call to give ourselves freely to others in turn. I thank all those throughout the world – lay people, religious and priests – who offer this witness of charity. May it be true of all Christians, whatever the circumstances in which they live.
May the Virgin Mary, Mother of Fair Love and Hope, be our guide and strength on this Lenten journey. Assuring you all of an affectionate remembrance in my prayers, I gladly impart my Apostolic Blessing to each of you, especially to those engaged day after day on the many frontiers of charity.
From the Vatican, 4 October 2001, Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi.
JOANNES PAULUS II