Q. What is the present discipline of the Catholic Church regarding fasting and abstaining from meat, especially during Lent?
A. Fasting and abstinence are part of a long Christian tradition that began with Jesus Christ himself.
Fasting is a "form of penance that imposes limits on the kind or quantity of food or drink" (Modern Catholic Dictionary, Doubleday). Though he had no need of personal repentance, Jesus "fasted for forty days and forty nights" (Mt. 4:2). He also taught his disciples how to fast (see Mt. 6:16-18) and told detractors his disciples would fast "when the Bridegroom is taken away" (Mk 2:18-20). We also find many occasions when the apostles fasted in the New Testament (see Acts 13:2; 14:23). Following this example, the earliest Christians observed weekly fast days (usually Wednesday and Fridays).
According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, abstinence- refraining from certain kinds of food or drink, especially flesh meats - was early established, and "the observance of the Friday abstinence is commemoration of the Passion and Death of Our Lord was common in both the Eastern and Western Church."
Though Catholics may, of course, fast and abstain from meat and other foods at other times, the Church has marked Ash Wednesday, Fridays in Lent, and the Friday of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ as special days of penance.
In their pastoral statement of November 18, 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops determined the following:
"Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent. They are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole."
The current discipline defines fasting as one full meal and two lighter meals in the course of a day.
Canon 152 of the Code of Canon Law states, "All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bounded by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance."
Canon 1249 says, "In order that all may be joined in a common observance of penance, penitential days are prescribed inn which the Christian faithful in a special way pray, exercise works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their responsibilities more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence.
Those who are too young, too old, or too ill to observe these days of fast and abstinence are expected to substitute other words of penance, especially words of charity and exercises of piety, as they are able.
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