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Fast and Abstinence

Good Friday and Ash Wednesday are the major days for fasting in general for those who have reached the age 18 and are not yet 60. Abstinence means no meat on those days for those who are age 14 [or over]. General canon law says that all Fridays are days of abstinence -- no meat -- but if you want to eat meat, you should substitute some other form of penance.

The US rules for abstinence from meat includes all Fridays during Lent; Fast (small meals, no snacks) + Abstinence (as in universal rules -- no meat) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Since the Council, the US bishops have never specified a particular penance for the other Fridays of the year; but the universal law still applies -- therefore it is left to the individual to choose the form this penance takes. Since abstinence from meat is traditional (and pretty straightforward), many Catholics observe still this as their form of penance that is required of Catholics on all Fridays (Canon 1250). Many, however, entirely ignore the law of penance on Fridays.

The practice of "giving up something" for Lent is part of this same requirement in the penitential season of Lent, though what you have to give up is not specified.

(See also Pre-Lent and Ash Wednesday pages.)

Related Page: MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS, BENEDICT XVI, FOR LENT 2009, December 11, 2008

Canon 1250  All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.

Canon 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 (nisi) they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Canon 1252  All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound 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 1253  It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

Catechism of the Catholic Church
To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament, the faithful should observe the fast required in their Church.220 Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest.

1434 The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving,31 which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: effort at reconciliation with one's neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one's neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity "which covers a multitude of sins."32

1438 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.36 These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).

1969 The New Law practices the acts of religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting, directing them to the "Father who sees in secret," in contrast with the desire to "be seen by men."24 Its prayer is the Our Father.25

2043 The fourth precept ("You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church") ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.85

The fifth precept ("You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church") means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.86

The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own abilities.87

USCCB "Penitential Practices for Today's Catholics" Committee on Pastoral Practices National Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 12, 2000.

History - Code of Canon Law 1917 edition

The laws regarding abstinence and fast were codified in the old (1917) Code of Canon Law, which are abrogated by the 1983 Code; however this is where one finds the PRECISE definitions of fast and abstinence that are now retained as "traditional". - hhh

Here are the relevant 1917 Canons:

Canon 1250. The law of abstinence prohibits meat and soups made of meat but not of eggs, milks, and other condiments, even if taken from animals.

Canon 1251. 1. The law of fast prescribes that there be only one meal a day; but it does not forbid that a little bit [of food] be taken in the morning and the evening, observing, nevertheless, the approved custom of places concerning the quantity and the quality of the food.

2. It is not forbidden to mix meat and fish in the same meal; or to exchange the evening meal with lunch.

Canon 1252. 1. The law of abstinence only must be observed every Friday.

2. The law of abstinence together with fast must be observed every Ash Wed, every Friday and Saturday of Lent, each of the Ember Days, and the vigils of the Pentecost, the Assumption of the God-bearer into heaven, All Saints, and the Nativity of the Lord.

3. The law of fast only is to be observed on all the other days of Lent.

4. On Sundays or feasts of precept, the law of abstinence or of abstinence and fast or a fast only ceases, except during Lent, nor is the vigil anticipated; likewise it ceases on Holy Saturday afternoon.

Canon 1254. 1. The law of abstinence binds all those who have completed seven years of age.

2. All those are bound by the law of fast from the completion of the twenty-first year of age until the beginning of the sixtieth.

Additional notes:

A Conference of Bishops may alter the forms of fasting and abstinence.

In 1966, following Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution, Paenitemini, which stated that the Holy See “intends to ratify with its prescriptions other forms of penitence as well, provided that it seems opportune to episcopal conferences to replace the observance of fast and abstinence with exercises of prayer and works of charity” (P Ch III.C) and said the Conferences of Bishops  could “substitute for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and devotional practices” (P , Ch  III,VI.1.B) the US bishops directed that:

"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 also 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 [excluding solemnities like Christmas which may fall  on Friday] is especially recommended to individuals and to the  Catholic community as a whole."

The relevant Canons are 1249-1253  in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) (As on our web page.)

The “or other food” clause in CIC 1249,  is effectively supplanted by CIC 1253, which says, “It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety”. (Emphasis added.)

In 1978, Paul VI in an address on Lent said:

“What remains of the Lenten obligation of abstinence and fast? Is nothing left of that season that once was so demanding, so strict, and so...ritualized? Except for the two fast days still obligatory for those capable [Ash Wed. and Good Friday], the strict obligation of former years has been abolished by the Church in its sensitivity to changed conditions and the demands of modern life. Yet for strong and faithful spirits what does remain is all the more worthy of being kept carefully in mind. Two elements supply for the former fast: personal austerity in regard to food, amusements, and work and love of neighbor -... All of this is left, along with the obligation of abstaining from meat on Friday during Lent. ...” (DOL 461  §3876 – Feb 8, 1978,)


UK Bishops: Catholic Witness - Friday Penance

Among the plenary resolutions of the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales, which met May 9-12, is the restoration of abstaining from meat on Fridays, beginning on September 16. The resolution, posted on the Conference web site,, states:

By the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.

Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord. The law of the Church requires Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, or some other form of food, or to observe some other form of penance laid down by the Bishops’ Conference.

The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognize that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.

Respectful of this, and in accordance with the mind of the whole Church, the
Bishops’ Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake. This is to come into effect from Friday, September 16, 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.

Many may wish to go beyond this simple act of common witness and mark each Friday with a time of prayer and further self-sacrifice. In all these ways we unite our sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ, who gave up his very life for our salvation.

November 12, 2012 Update.

" The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent." excerpt from Cardinal Timothy Dolan's Address to the USCCB Nov 12, 2012

Paenitemini (Apostolic Constitution On Penance) Pope Paul VI (February 17, 1966).

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