The Gospels speak of a period of seclusion for Jesus in the desert, during which He remained for forty days without eating.
It was a time in which Jesus was preparing to embark on His public ministry. Ever since the time of our Lord, fasting and prayer retreats have been looked upon as a great way of discerning career and vocation direction. Fasting also helps to order things in one’s life. By fasting, you are able to control the lower passions so that you take only what you need to live and not more.
In the Catholic tradition, fasting has always been a part of our Lenten observance. We learn from the Catechism of the Catholic Church about the fifth precept of the Church in number 2043, “You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence. This ensures the times of ascesis (self-discipline) and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.”
The Catechism also explains in number 1438 when one should fast: “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).
Each year every diocese issues the common Lenten observance, which instructs the faithful about the days of fast and abstinence. The days of fast and abstinence are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. All other Fridays of Lent are Days of Abstinence. From the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday until the celebration of the Easter Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday, the Easter Fast should be observed so that, with uplifted and welcoming hearts, we may be ready to celebrate the joys of the Resurrection.
The ancient tradition, intimately connected with the Rites of Holy Week and the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, is encouraged, especially in those places baptizing catechumens at the Easter Vigil.
The obligation to fast applies only to Catholics between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine. To fast in the Catholic tradition means to limit oneself to one full meal during the day with no snacks. You are allowed two smaller meals, but only if they are small enough that were you to combine them, they would not equal or surpass the one full meal. The obligation of abstinence affects all Catholics who have reached the age of fourteen. Abstinence in the Catholic tradition means to abstain from flesh meat (beef, pork, poultry, and game—basically, the meat of any warm-blooded animal) and all meat products. Fish and the flesh of all cold-blooded animals, vegetables, and fruit are allowed at any time.
The obligation of fast and abstinence, as a whole, is a serious obligation. While failure to observe any penitential day in itself may not be considered serious, the failure to observe any penitential day at all, or a substantial number of them without good cause, would be considered a grave matter. Those unable to abstain for a valid reason on any given Friday of Lent are asked to perform some other penitential act, or to abstain on another day. Pregnant or nursing mothers, diabetics, anyone needing food with their medication, and those in the military during maneuvers or while in battle, are exempt.
What if you’re a vegetarian? Then abstain from one of your favorite vegetables or fruits. You can also eat something you do not like instead of abstaining from something you do like, with permission of your local pastor, should the normal abstinence be difficult or impossible.