24 February 2004
My dear people,
Many Catholics well remember the time when fasting and abstinence was univer-sally a serious business for members of the Church. Abstinence from meat every Friday of the year was one of the sharpest definers of Catholic identity not only among ourselves but to others as well. The Lenten fast was taken seriously and practised in much the same spirit as Muslims observe Ramadan today, as an accepted part of living the faith and being part of a universal Church which spanned twenty centuries and bridged eternity.
Change brought misunderstanding
About forty years ago rapid changes overtook many old practices and disci-plines. Certainly the Church did not abolish fasting and abstinence, but rather tried to encourage penitential practices that were considered to be more contem-porary and meaningful. That clearly is the fact and intention expressed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canons 1249-1253). But it was widely taken to mean that everything had now been made easier.
Not only did the defining dietary obser-vances of Catholic tradition seem to be no longer important, but other awkward requirements that clashed with a modern life-style, like the cycle of Holy Days of Obligation, were modified so as to almost disappear. How many of us today give much attention to the Eucharistic fast, so short has it become, or to what the fast is meant to remind us: a careful and well-prepared approach to the Lord of power and might in the sacrament of the Eucharist?
The season of Lent returns again with its unchanging call to prayer, fasting and self-denial. It is a time of grace, whose serious purpose is to help us to become more closely united with our suffering Saviour so that we may share the more profitably in His triumph over sin and death in the glory of the Resurrec-tion. As we sing during Lent in James McAuley’s expressive words
Now we fast that we may feast,
where the Lord of life presides;
may our hunger be increased
for the Bread which He provides.
Fasting laws direct us to the law of love
Fasting and abstinence are prophetic signs that need to be rediscovered as basic practices of the discipline of Lent. Simplicity and difference in diet as elements of the Church’s law are meant to serve as practical triggers for those works of charity which fulfil the higher law whose two great commandments are love of God and love of our neighbour. Abstaining from meat on Fridays never meant choosing seafoods instead, but simpler fare that was not attractive to our sense of taste. The reason: to call to mind the saving Passion of Christ on the Friday we have ever since called ‘Good.’ Every Friday and every Sunday are our weekly participation in the Paschal Mystery that springs from Holy Week.
Fasting and abstinence in practice
In these days of unending series of one TV chef after another, obsession with fine foods, overindulgence and a national obesity problem, Christian traditions of fasting and abstinence can hardly be irrelevant, and should serve to put us in touch with some basic realities.
Firstly, our food and drink is a gift of the providence of God our Father. Our eating and drinking, says St Paul, should be done to the glory of God.Hence the Christian practice, also in need of restora-tion among us, of grace before (and after) meals.
Secondly, the restraint and discipline in regard to food and drink is in direct imitation of Our Lord’s own practice, as we know from His forty days’ fast, and the teaching which he gave to his disciples, “when the Bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast.” Anything we freely do in imitation of Christ’s example or in obedience to His teaching must be a rich source of grace to the individual.
Thirdly, fasting and abstinence are a means of uniting in solidarity with the poor and hungry, and a reminder of our duty to help them in their need. Secular aid agencies un-derstand this in their encouragement of such practices as ‘forty hour famines’ and making do with a bowl of rice for the day. Fourthly, acts of penance give those who are healthy and well an opportunity to share in the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters who live daily with sickness and the prospect of death, and gain for them extra graces in patience and acceptance of God’s loving will.
Finally, besides attending to our own need of repentance, Lent is the time to recall our obligation to pray and do penance and offer our sacrifices for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of the world. Christ draws all His mem-bers into sharing the great work He came into this world to do. He achieved that salvation on the Cross, and as that Sacrifice is renewed in every Mass it is the source of all future grace for His members, you and me, to continue that work until His return in glory.
May the grace and peace of Christ our Lord bless your Lenten observance, and bring you to the fulness of joy in his Resurrection, reconciled, forgiven and ready to meet Him in the Easter Sacraments.
Geoffrey Jarrett, Bishop of Lismore
Lenten Fasting Regulations
1. Abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
No meat may be eaten on these days of abstinence.
Catholics 14 years and older are bound to abstain from meat. Invalids, pregnant and nursing mothers are exempt.
2. Fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
Fasting means having only one full meal to maintain one’s strength. Two smaller, meatless and penitential meals are permitted according to one’s needs, but they should not together equal the one full meal. Eating solid foods between meals is not permitted.
Catholics over 18 but not yet 60 years are bound to fast. Again, inva-lids, pregnant and nursing mothers are exempt.
3. Friday Abstinence throughout the Year
It should be noted that Fridays throughout the year are designated days of penance. The Code of Canon Law states that Friday is a day of absti-nence from meat throughout the year. However, our Bishops have allowed us to choose, if we so wish, a different form of penance rather than ab-staining from meat, but there must be some form of penance, for this is the day we commemorate Christ’s suffering and death. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance we give first place to absti-nence from flesh meat.
Grace and peace be with you, and my blessing in Christ.
+ Geoffrey Jarrett
Bishop of Lismore.