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Debate: Should the Friday Fast be restored?

Or should it be left up to individual Catholics to observe?

By on Friday, 3 December 2010

A soup of water (Photo: CNS)

A soup of water (Photo: CNS)

This week the Irish bishops urged the faithful to take up Friday penance again. They suggest abstaining from meat or alcohol, but also visiting the Blessed Sacrament, making the Stations of the Cross, or helping the sick, poor, old or lonely.

The English and Welsh bishops, meanwhile, considered whether to restore the Friday Fast at their plenary meeting last month.

They have asked Fr Marcus Stock, general secretary of the bishops’ conference, to investigate ways of revitalising Lent as a penitential season.

Of course, Catholics are meant to do some kind of penance on Fridays; the practice, though, is no longer widely observed. Should the bishops put more emphasis on it? The Friday Fast would be another way for Catholics to commit publicly to their faith. It would be an opportunity to remember Christ’s Passion and death, and, in a small way, to share in his suffering.

On the other hand, Friday Fasts, making the Sign of the Cross, saying grace before dinner – these are all external actions. What matters is our interior faith, our interior relationship with Christ.

So, should the bishops restore the Friday Fast? Or should it be left to individual Catholics to observe voluntarily, rather than being imposed?

  • Mac

    Rather than restoring traditional practices such as fasting and abstinence on Fridays, I would encourage the Bishops to think creatively and look for external signs that inspire reflection on interior faith. I think that attempts to restore old practices would be ignored by many, seen as a substitute for internal faith and relationship with Christ by others, and observed by only a minority. Why not ask Catholics to suggest “external actions” – outward signs likely to deepen faith and individual relationship with Christ as well as witness to the world. The end result might be similar e.g. some some form of sacrifice but linked to the needs of others e.g. devote a certain % of household spending on food and drink to a charity, devoting a % of time to specific positive activity. Such approaches would emphasise the positives and reduce the risk of such activties become “externals” not linked to faith. They would emphasise what our faith IS about rather than what it IS NOT about.

  • Nick Turner

    Of course! It's a no-brainer. The Friday abstinence (not 'fast') was always one of our most distinctive practises. We have seriously risked becoming, like the Church of England, a 'Sunday hobby'.

  • louella

    I think this is a great idea. Our religion has become too internalised….and it is easy to quench or sideline an internalised religion by outside hostile forces. Also it gives structure and solidity to our beliefs and makes us remember why we are fasting and in honour of Whom on Friday.

    I would really welcome leadership from the bishops on this……but of course they cannot police such a thing and wouldn't want to anyhow. Nevertheless it is an invitation to express and remember our beloved faith….and practise some sorely needed light penance which we have almost forgotten about.

  • Giles

    “Faith without works is dead.” Our's is a profoundly incarnational religion and not some disembodied gnosis. A diet of feast without fast quickly looses our attachment and, in a sense, every Sunday should be preceded by a little Good Friday. As for obligations, one could as easily argue that there should not be one to attend mass, and that we should do so entirely out of love. The Church is expert on human nature and knows how weak we are. She therefore imposes so that a faith may increase from the most precarious situations.

  • Anthony Fernandez

    Yes the Friday Abstaining from meat and alcohol must be brought back and many other things. Religion is a guide in life and the church must go back and not change to suite needs

  • PhilipH

    I feel this should be a spontaneous thing for the faithful to do, not a top-down directive from the Bishops. The sort of approach muted here can lead to what I would call religion by rote, not a living faith.

  • Steve Murray

    The medical consensus today is that less meat is indicated. It is hardly a penance to do less of what one should already be doing less of. But, a Friday penance that all can share will promote Catholic identity and unity. Instead of no meat on Friday, how about no media on Friday?

  • Joseph Antoniello

    The Friday fast was never done away with.

    CIC 1250: All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church.
    CIC 1251: Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities.

  • Catherine

    Yes, the bishops should restore Friday Fast. Should it be left up to individual Catholics? Are you serious? We all know how that would go.

  • Ratbag

    The Friday fast and abstinence NEVER actually left us. It has never been left off to be restored in the first place. It's just our priests and bishops have not given the matter any prominence or given it any airtime. The importance of fasting, abstaining, penance and extra good works is what the Holy Father has emphasised time and time again. It is as crucial to the practise of our faith as going to Mass and the sacraments.

    The voluntary observance of fasting and abstaining should be imposed. This is a faith, not a supermarket or cafeteria.

  • Warren

    “On the other hand, Friday Fasts, making the Sign of the Cross, saying grace before dinner – these are all external actions. What matters is our interior faith, our interior relationship with Christ.”

    The aforementioned external actions are like saying “I love you” to a spouse. They are not mere add-ons. They are necessary expressions of our love for God, responses to the Lord's grace. The disciplines sanctioned by the Church, i.e., the legitimate authority of the Church, dispose us to God's grace and harmonize us with the will of God. Without the guidance of Holy Mother Church, people tend to drift away from any spiritual discipline or into bizarre practices that allow one to worship a god made in one's own image.

    In light of the dismal (abysmal) effects of making abstinence voluntary, we need the Friday abstinence to help guide people to a deeper relationship with Christ and to unify the Catholic witness to Christ.

  • Rjashton

    The Friday fast is only the first step on restoring fasting as a Christian practice as fundamental as prayer and good works. Ask the Orthodox what fasting means to them. Ask a Muslim. It's self denial, certainly, but so much more. And the Western Church has completely forgotten about it.

  • Rjashton

    The Friday fast is only the first step on restoring fasting as a Christian practice as fundamental as prayer and good works. Ask the Orthodox what fasting means to them. Ask a Muslim. It's self denial, certainly, but so much more. And the Western Church has completely forgotten about it.

  • Theo

    When I find myself in one of those spiritually dry periods, nothing restores the soul like a fast. In our decadent American culture, we hardly think of ever having to do without, even for a moment. But when we empty ourselves by fasting, there is then room for the Holy Spirit to fill us completely.

  • Aquinas and More

    Yes, the “Let's make everything voluntary” has sure worked wonders on the strength of the average Catholic.

  • Joycestolberg411

    Do you mean “fast” or abstinence from meat, as practiced until sometime in the 1960s or early 70swhen the Church asked us to make an adult choice of an appropriate, meaningful Friday penance for ourselves. The problem is — many chose not to do anything.

  • Strivetobecome

    Bring it back. Catholics have the full faith “unabridged Christianity,” It's time to respect our traditions that make us mindful of Christ's sacrifice for us on Good Friday by taking every Friday to heart for reflection and mortification to prepare our soul for Christ's grace he won for us. It's by holy examples we extend Christ's outreach to the lost, and every discipline of our faith that helps us in this mission is worth promoting and protecting. Bring it back, please bring it back.

  • The Moz

    My wife have started eating fish on fridays, something we never used to do.

  • Kristine

    I think there are many catholics who have forgotten completely that our Lord in the gospel urges us to “fast and pray” too many times to say that the fast may be optional. In the primitive church the prayer always was accompanied by the fast. Not only the friday fast have been forgotten, but the Eucharistic fast, that is abstinence from any food or drink an hour before the communion, is abandonned too. For those who consider these fast practices obsolete and too demanding, I would like to remind that our orthodox brothers still observe fast twice a week (on Wednesday and Friday), and for them it means abstaining from any animal origin product (i.e. not only meat, but fish, animal fat, eggs and dairy products). It goes without saying that they observe that kind of fast during the whole Lent. That should be a model and a source of reflexion for us, catholics. Probably we have become too weak in our faith and our stomacks.

  • signum_magnum

    Of course it should be restored. So many of our devotions, obligations and yes, even our liturgy have been sacrificed at the altar of modernity and what has it achieved? Our children and young people are inadequately catechised, attendance on Holy days of Obligation has been moved by our lunatic bishops to the nearest Sunday (people apparantly couldn't be persuaded to attend Holy Mass on the proper days!).It goes on…..

  • Ijak62

    It is quite simple really. The bishops and other clergy should set the example, and encourage their flock to follow. Imposing it just will be another cause of complaint. But actually doing it, and understanding its value not just for the individual for the Christian community as a whole is something long overdue.

  • Elizabeth

    I wholly concur that the practice of abstinence on Fridays should be reinvigorated amongst the faithful. What a wonderful opportunity to offer a sacrifice, albeit small, to our Lord. Furthermore, as noted by others, implementation of this practice allows for a more tangible sign of our devotion to Christ.

    In my life, I have found the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays to be a blessing: not only does it facilitate a greater commitment to Jesus, but also encourages me to meditate on His suffering and Love more clearly.

    May God bless you all, especially during this Advent season!

  • Utep99

    I agree the friday fast still stands and should be done with some act of kindness to the poor or elderly. I believe that from this we fast and take this day in prayer I have found by doing this your closeness to Christ can and will increase. I am certainly not a Priest or a Bishop (I am not worthy of such a honor) but I believe as a Catholic who fell away and then returned the older actions that most have forgotten should be followed. I find this to be a central part of our faith as when we tried to “keep up with the times” we lost our idenity as The Holy Roman Catholic Church and became instead The Catholic Church, Some would say they both mean the same thing I would have to disagree.

  • jan

    As a vegan I never eat meat, and would be delighted if all Catholics gave up eating meat on Fridays because it would save millions of animals from suffering and slaughter. Bring it on, I say!

  • Gideon Ertner

    The Ecumenical Council Vatican II demanded thus:

    “During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 110)

    How the Church ended up allowing the faithful to substitute external practices such as fasting and abstinence for internal actions such as prayer, at the sole discretion of the individual, is completely beyond me. It certainly has no basis in the documents of Vatican II.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    Saying “I love you” to one's spouse is very important indeed. But if it became an obligation, for instance, to be said everyday upon waking up and at 6 PM, would it still retain any value? It seems to me it would cease to be a manifestation and strengthening of love to become only an empty and bureaucratic ritual.

    I have mixed feelings about the Friday fast. I for one like that each faithful can choose something to let go of in Fridays instead of having them all abstain from meat and alcohol. Yes, it did mean a significant decrease in fasting (however, are there data for the last years? My impression is that it has been increasing again), but on the other hand it gives the spiritual life its condition of freedom, which is essential in all loving relationships.

  • Cpaulitz

    Outward signs are critical too.

  • louella

    I think it is good to have clear guidelines and rules….given by the Universal Church or at least by the bishops. People will always veer towards doing the least on their own….except for highly motivated religious people…..who will fast anyhow. So let's bring back the not-so-strong Catholics……..and give them their fasting portion……then they too might leave the hum drum souless world of secular self indulgence for the demands of life giving Catholicism……following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

    And as someone so rightly said… gives a sense of unity to all Catholics. Sometimes I think we identify more with our favourite football team or political party…..than the most important thing in the world…..the Catholic Faith.

  • Thomas

    Yes, Friday abstinence should be the norm among the faithful. We can't leave it up to “individual conscience,” because we seem to be like little children. We can't be trusted to do the right thing. This is painfully obvious during Lent, where the majority give lip service to the penitential season, then go about as though nothing were different.

    There's continuity among pre- and post-Vatican II, and this should be stressed by imposing these basic acts of penance once again.

  • Yianni

    I'm a Greek Orthodox Christian who strives to conform to the normative practices of the Church, as best I can. Fasting as practiced in the Church is a great deal more than performing a sort of bodily penance. Fasting is an act of love for Christ, and of trust in the living Tradition of the Church, as breathed into the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Fasting is both a physical and a spiritual discipline, and can be very demanding. As such, we humans can easily warp it into something that is spiritually far more harmful than helpful, through pride, or excessive scrupulosity, or other distortions. Most Eastern Orthodox who fast are encouraged to do so under the careful direction of our priest or spiritual director, who is often a monk or nun, well-acquainted with spiritual and physical asceticism. Unless your fathers and teachers in Christ – the bishops, priests and monastics of the Roman Catholic Church – practice fasting themselves, and understand both its joy and sweetness, as well as its potential for grave spiritual harm, what good could come from reinstating the practice? When your spiritual fathers (or mothers) are prepared to guide and inspire individual parishioners with their great love and experience, the time will have returned. It must start with them, voluntarily, and with joy and lightness of spirit.

  • Fr. Philip Speranza

    One of the most important aspects of prescribed fasts is that of community. By fasting together at the same time and in the same way, we are both giving and receiving support and encouragement in our ascetical life. Note that in Matthew 6:16, when the Lord says “when you fast…,” the verb is a plural, not a singular, implying that fasting is something His disciples will do together. And the reason is obvious. In terms of our need to put to death the flesh (meaning our selfish and self-centered and self-worshiping selves), we're all in exactly the same boat and make better progress when we row together. Further, the “leave it up to the individual” attitude essentially rejects the apostolic teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 on the nature of the Church and, in effect, allows the individual to say to the rest of the Body “I have no need of you.”

    Fr. Philip Speranza

  • Joel Pinheiro

    Sorry, Father, but that is exaggerated in the very least. It would be the same as if I said that making the fast obligatory again was “essentially” putting the letter above the spirit, or denying that the truth sets us free. Yes, you do raise a valid point I hadn't thought of: the community aspect of having a fast that is the same for everyone. I myself, as I said, have mixed feelings on the issue. But to put it as you did makes it seem that for the last decades the Church has in fact rejected apostolic teaching, which is false.

    What really preoccupies me is the mindset of many people who want the fast back, as shown here: overly legalistic and desirous of rules to prescribe every little aspect of life to the faithful. For many Catholics of a more traditional bent, all they desire is a hard and dictatorial Church (which is a role that was sadly increasingly emphasized ever since the end of the Middle Ages until Vatican II) whose many rules they can obey.

    I like the suggestion of priests and bishops encouraging people to observe the fast and giving the example, but making it obligatory seems a step in the wrong direction.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    You are right that without some objective guidelines it is very easy for everyone to fool themselves and just do nothing. But there is also the danger of too many guidelines, which destroys liberty and therefore any value that the spiritual practices might have.

    But think in pastoral terms: attending Mass on Sundays, whose value is infinitely higher than fasting, is mandatory (as it should be), and yet most Catholics don't do it (even in a Catholic country like Brazil where I live). Imposing stricter rules right now probably won't have a very good effect.

    But with the arguments I've read here I'm beginning to change my mind. Perhaps reinstituting the fast is a good idea after all. I just think it would be better if it were encouraged and not made into one more legal matter. Look how many people here insist that the fast has “never been abrogated”. For them the fact that it is written in an old statute of canon law and hasn't been formally erased is more important that the living custom and guidelines offered by bishops and popes. That is the spirit of Ockham, not Aquinas.

  • Stephenmcelligott

    Yeah why not? I think it would be good. with regards to the second last paragraph of your blog post…Those signs, although outward, also create the interior relationship with Christ too. great graces are derived from doing such actions and they are just part and parcel of the interior relationship with Christ.


  • Phillipturnbull

    Fish and chips on Friday back in the 50's and 60's was a constant reminder to me that I was a Catholic. The law helped.

  • louella

    These rules cannot destroy liberty…..nobody is forced to follow them. But if no rules are given….who will follow?! And while Mass is the central crux of the faith…..fasting and prayer are also highly important. Jesus Christ gave us the example and Our Lady reiterated it at Fatima.

    And look at the evils perpetrated on mankind in the 20th century alone! I think it is time for the return of fasting. Who knows….soon we may have no choice but to fast the way the economy is going.

  • Yianni

    Thanks for pointing that out, Kristine. The Eastern Orthodox also practice the Eucharistic fast – which prohibits any food or liquid (even water) – not for only an hour prior to communion, but from midnight the night before – more like ten or eleven hours. The Oriental Orthodox (Copts, Ethiopians, etc.) also refrain from eating or even speaking for a period of time AFTER taking the Eucharist, in recognition of the holiness of the Eucharist. These practices tend to help one focus on the sacred nature of what really occurs when we encounter God in the Eucharist.