Lent is the most solemn of all fasting times in the Church. From Apostolic times until 1741, meat was never allowed in Lent. Even after it was permitted at some meals, Fridays and Saturdays remained mandatory days of complete abstinence in Lent into the early 1900s. Friday in particular, the most solemn of all days on account of our Lord’s death on the Cross on Friday, was a mandatory day of abstinence all year round (and it still is!) Up until the 1917 Code of Canon Law, meat was not even allowed on Holy Days of Obligation which fell on a Friday outside of Lent. The Friday fast, like Sunday Mass, is integral to Catholic life. This post is based heavily on the research which is incorporated in « The Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting and Abstinence. » Read the full book for much more information relevant to this topic.
Definition of Fasting vs. Abstinence
Fasting refers to how much food we eat and, historically, when we eat it. It means taking only one meal during a calendar day. The meal should be an average-sized meal as overeating at the one meal is against the spirit of the fast. Fasting generally means that the meal is to be taken later in the day. Along with the one meal, up to two snacks (technically called either a collation or frustulum) are permitted. These are optional, not required. Added up together, they may not equal the size of the one meal. No other snacking throughout the day is permitted.
Abstinence in this context refers to not eating meat. Meat refers to the fleshmeat of mammals or fowl. Beef, poultry, lamb, etc are all forbidden on days of abstinence. Abstinence does not currently prohibit animal byproducts like dairy (e.g. cheese, butter, milk) or eggs, but in times past they were prohibited. Fish is currently permitted along with shellfish and other cold-blooded animals like alligators. In times past, days of fast were always days of abstinence as well; however, not all days of abstinence were days of mandatory fasting.
The Church’s Law in 1917
The days of obligatory fasting as listed in the 1917 Code of Canon Law were the forty days of Lent (including Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday until noon); the Ember Days; and the Vigils of Pentecost, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints, and Christmas. Partial abstinence, the eating of meat only at the principal meal, was obligatory on all weeks of Lent (Monday through Thursday). And of course, complete abstinence was required on all Fridays, including Fridays of Lent, except when a holy day of obligation fell on a Friday outside of Lent. Saturdays in Lent were likewise days of complete abstinence.
The Church’s Law in 1962
By 1962, the laws of fasting and abstinence were as follows as described in « Moral Theology » by Rev. Heribert Jone and adapted by Rev. Urban Adelman for the « laws and customs of the United States of America » copyright 1961: « Complete abstinence is to be observed on all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday, the Vigils of Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Partial abstinence is to be observed on Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays and on the Vigil of Pentecost. Days of fast are all the weekdays of Lent, Ember Days, and the Vigil of Pentecost. » If a vigil falls on a Sunday, the law of abstinence and fasting is dispensed that year and is not transferred to the preceding day. Father Jone adds additional guidance for the Vigil of the Nativity fast: « General custom allows one who is fasting to take a double portion of food at the collation on Christmas Eve (jejunium gaudiosum). »
The Modern Church Law
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on November 18, 1966. Abstinence was kept obligatory on all Fridays of Lent, except Solemnities (i.e. First Class Feasts), on Ash Wednesday, and on Good Friday. Abstinence on all Fridays throughout the year was « especially recommended, » and the faithful who did choose to eat meat were directed to perform an alternative penance on those Fridays outside of Lent, even though the US Bishops removed the long-establish precept of requiring Friday penance. The document stated in part: « Even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we … hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to church law. » And finally, fasting on all weekdays of Lent was « strongly recommended » but not made obligatory under penalty of sin.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law largely took Paul VI’s apostolic constitution aside from the modification of the age at which fasting binds. Per the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the age of fast was changed to begin at 18 – previously it was 21 – and to still conclude at midnight when an individual completes his 59th birthday. Friday penance is required per these laws on all Fridays of the year except on Solemnities, a dramatic change from the previous exception being only on Holy Days of Obligation.
Per the 1983 Code of Canon Law, fasting and complete abstinence per these rules are required only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The notion of « partial abstinence, » introduced under Pope Benedict XIV in 1741, was also removed. By this point, the days of obligatory fast had been reduced to merely two days. And most Catholics only abstained from meat on the 7 Fridays in Lent.
Fridays in Lent
History of St. Patrick’s Day in Lent
For the Irish (and for Irish Americans) St. Patrick’s Day is a both a cultural milestone and, traditionally, a very significant spiritual day. Sadly, this element has also been lost, which is ultimately why so many feel it necessary to seek out dispensations from Friday abstinence on the feastday of a saint who, ironically, was a fearless champion of fasting!
Back in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was a Holy Day of Obligation and still, without special dispensation, a day of mandatory fast and abstinence.
The Dispensations for St. Patrick’s Day in 2023
Conclusion: The True Celebration of a Catholic, St. Patrick’s Day
Despite the changes he introduced to Lenten fasting in 1741, Pope Benedict XIV implored:
« The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe. »
It must be clearly stated there is no incompatibility between fasting and abstaining and celebrating the saints. Even Sundays of Lent used to be required days of abstinence (but not fast). Let us fast and abstain always on St. Joseph’s Day, Annunciation Day, and St. Patrick’s Day each year during Lent. Our adherence to and preservation of the Traditional Catholic Faith requires this. Even with the fast, it is possible to honor St. Patrick’s Day with a loaf of traditional Irish soda bread. Check your local bakery or grocery store and get a loaf to have at dinner.
As Catholics, we abstain on Fridays in Lent, just as we go to Mass on Sundays. As traditional Catholics, we must maintain Friday abstinence and should encourage everyone else to do so for the honor of God and for the glory of St. Patrick. Let us offer up additional prayers and penances this year on St. Patrick’s Day for the many who will mortally sin against our Lord and mock His sacrifice on the Cross by eating meat. While it may seem to be a small offense, it was the eating of a forbidden fruit that brought about original sin and the loss of paradise in the Garden of Eden. If we love God, surely we can say no to flesh meat on at least Friday in Lent. Right?