As we approach Lent, it might be helpful to review some information about fasting and abstinence. There are many kinds of fasts, and several reasons to fast. As Catholics, we tend to think of fasting as either reducing our food intake or giving up a treasured treat. The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship lists four reasons for fasting:
- Preparation for a feast
- Penance and atonement for sins
- Acknowledgment that all we have comes from God
- Solidarity with those who live in want
While our fasting might be for all of these reasons, in Lent we tend to focus on the first two.
What is a fast?
But are we really fasting? Lent begins with the story of Jesus’ fast in the desert—a fast of 40 days without food. Many of us have probably never been 40 hours without food. The definition of a fast for Catholics is eating only one full meal a day along with two smaller meals—a light breakfast and lunch and a normal dinner, for example. That’s pretty much what I eat every day, so it’s really not much of a fast.
As Catholics, we are required to fast only two days out of the year—Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are also encouraged to fast, along with the elect, on Holy Saturday (see RCIA 185). The requirement to fast applies only to those who are between the ages of 18 and 60. I guess the thinking is that going without food would not be healthy for children and seniors. Really, though, all the fast asks of them is to not snack between meals, so I’m thinking we can encourage the fast for everyone, no matter what their age.
The U.S. bishops recommend (but don’t require) that every day of Lent be a fast day. (See Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, 14.) Given the very generous Catholic definition of fasting, that seems easily doable for the more devout among us. Perhaps as a particular preparation, we might ask the elect and the catechumenate team to fast (eating only one full meal and two smaller meals) on all the Fridays of Lent.
What about meatless Fridays?
Technically, going without meat on Fridays is not fasting; it is abstaining. Presumably you can eat until you burst, as long as there is no animal flesh on your Friday menu. Older Catholics can remember when all Fridays were abstinence days. Now, only Ash Wednesday, the Fridays in Lent, and Good Friday are so designated. And the age range is expanded. The rule applies to all those 14 and older.
One thing a lot of Catholics don’t know is that every Friday of the year is still designated as a penitential day. We are supposed to do some penitential act, such as abstaining from meat. The difference between today and my childhood is that the penitential act can be anything we want. It doesn’t have to be giving up meat, but we still have to do something. (See Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, 22-24.)
Should the catechumens give something up for Lent?
Although not required by church law, it is a tradition for Catholics to give up something for Lent. Certainly the catechumens and the elect would want to imitate us in that practice. But it doesn’t have to be just about giving up something. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists 20 different penitential actions we can engage in:
- gestures of reconciliation
- concern for the poor
- the exercise and defense of justice and right (cf. Am 5:24; Isa 1:17)
- by the admission of faults to one’s brethren
- fraternal correction
- revision of life
- examination of conscience
- spiritual direction
- acceptance of suffering
- endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness
- taking up our cross each day and following Jesus
- Eucharist (separates us from sin)
- reading Scripture
- praying the Liturgy of the Hours
- praying the Lord’s Prayer (1435-1438)
- spiritual exercises
- penitential liturgies
- voluntary self-denial
- fraternal sharing
The paschal fast
The paschal fast has no sense of penance to it. It is totally focused on preparing for the feast. It begins at sundown on Holy Thursday and is broken by the celebration of the Easter Vigil. For the elect, the paschal fast is not only a reduction in food intake, but also a time of quiet, during which they “refrain from their usual activities, spend their time in prayer and reflection” (RCIA 185). You will want to help them plan ahead so, if possible, they can take time off from work and get all of their Easter preparations completed beforehand. As far as possible, the paschal fast should be a time of intense focus on what the elect are about to celebrate.
Miriam Malone, SNJM, has provided all TeamRCIA.com subscribers with a free copy of her Preparation Rites Retreat for the Elect on Holy Saturday. This is a great tool to help the elect spend this time in prayer. Click here for more information.
Share your thoughts
So what are you giving up for Lent? What penitential practices will you encourage the elect to do? And what are your plans for the time of the paschal fast (Holy Thursday night until the Vigil)?
2 thoughts on “An RCIA guide to fasting in Lent”
This is only true for Latin Rite Catholics. Those of us in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church have much more ascetic disciplines.
It should be noted that in the US, Latin Rite Catholics are “urged” but not required to partake in the Friday penance. (See #24 of Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, USCCB)
Thanks for the clarification Rob! Would you mind sharing more about the fasting discipline in the Eastern Rites?