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James T. KeaneMarch 03, 2022
Photo from iStock.

Lent is upon us, a penitential season of prayer, abstinence and fasting. While Lent is no longer the edgy physical and spiritual boot camp our parents and grandparents might remember, Catholics are still called to take up sacrifices and penances in their daily routine during the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. Fasting, in addition to being obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, remains a common Lenten practice for many. But there are nuances to fasting that are not always well-known. Here are seven things you might or might not know about the practice.

1. Catholics fasted a lot more before the Second Vatican Council—and not just on Fridays or in Lent.

Back in the day, Catholics didn’t just fast from meat on Fridays in Lent—they fasted from meat during all of Lent (hence the emergence of “carnival,” from the Latin for “farewell to meat,” on the days before Ash Wednesday). But even outside of Lent, the rules were stricter: Fridays were no-meat days year-round unless they coincided with a major feast day.

And then there were the Ember Days. No, these were not the days in Sept-ember and Nov-ember and Dec-ember. Ember Days were three-day periods during each of the four seasons of the year that were also set aside for prayer, abstinence and fasting. Keep in mind that for 19 centuries, the church existed in largely agrarian societies. In order to successfully plant and harvest crops—that is, not to starve—a society had to pay close attention to the seasons. The Catholic Church’s calendar acknowledged that reality, in part, with its Ember Days.

Catholics used to fast from meat during all of Lent—hence “Carnival,” from the Latin for “farewell to meat,” on the days before Ash Wednesday.

Ember Days were observed on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of four weeks: The week following the third Sunday in Advent; the week following the first Sunday in Lent; the week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday; and the week following the Feast of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14). Pope Paul VI made their observance voluntary in 1966, though many traditionalist Catholics and Anglicans still follow these strictures.

Ember Days were also historically connected with ordination to the priesthood, and many dioceses and religious orders still follow the custom of ordaining priests on the Saturday of the summer set of Ember Days, between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. The downside? For many priests, their first official homily is on Trinity Sunday, not the easiest topic for a newbie to preach on.

2. After Vatican II, the church got rid of Friday abstinence from meat, right? Wrong.

It is still the universal law of the Latin Church that Catholics are to abstain from meat every Friday, unless it coincides with a major feast day. Here’s Canon 1251 of the Code of Canon Law: “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.”

[Related: It’s time for Catholics to go back to no meat on every Friday (not just during Lent)]

How am I still getting Friday meat sweats if I’m obligated to abstain from the stuff? The get-out-of-jail-free card is found in Canon 1253: “The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.”

In the United States, the key moment of change came in 1966, when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released a “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence.” It argued that “the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most,” and “to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.”

As a result, through “​​other forms of penitential witness,” Friday was to be treated as “a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.” This change, the bishops wrote, was made “in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”

The key phrase here is “other forms of penitential witness,” which became the standard swap-out for abstinence from meat in many dioceses around the world. So if you want that cheeseburger, you have to do another form of penance—and it can’t just be forgoing the fries.

Friday was still to be treated as “a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.”

3. Who’s obligated to fast and abstain from meat according to church law? Fewer people than you think.

Canon 1252 in the Code of Canon Law has this to say about fasting and abstinence:

The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

In other words, the only people who are actually bound by church law to abstain from meat are Catholics older than 14; the only ones required to fast are those between 18 to 59.

You can see the reasoning: The elderly can put their health at risk when they fast, and children can put their growth and development at risk if they do. Of course, improvements in health care and increasing longevity mean that 60 is the new 40, and by now exempting the entire Baby Boomer generation from fasting, we end up with almost half of Catholics living free and clear of the obligation: Fully 45 percent of U.S Catholics are younger than 18 or older than 59.

4. St. Ignatius was a stickler for most things—but thought it best to pump your brakes sometimes when it came to fasting.

Don’t get me wrong, St. Ignatius was an ascetic and expected his followers to be the same. He made it clear in his writings that giving up special treats—chocolate or dessert or caffeine—most certainly did not count as fasting (uh oh). To give up things you already didn’t need, he argued, was simply the proper exercise of the virtue of temperance; or, to paraphrase Chris Rock, you don’t get credit for doing what you’re supposed to do. Real fasting, according to St. Ignatius, involves denying oneself a certain amount of the daily food (or sleep) that one needs.

For St. Ignatius, denying oneself the necessary amount of food or sleep should be seen as a worthy sacrifice, but should be stopped immediately if the penitent feels like his or her body is suffering harm.

At the same time, Ignatius provided a caveat: Denying oneself the necessary amount of food or sleep should be seen as a worthy sacrifice, but should be stopped immediately if the penitent feels like his or her body is suffering harm. This practical concession to bodily health may have been learned by St. Ignatius the hard way: Some biographers think his extreme fasting during his “first fervor” in the year after his conversion permanently damaged his stomach and caused him health problems for the rest of his life.

5. Fasting is a diet craze all its own.

Say you’re a Catholic in 1955 and it’s the third set of Ember Days. You eat normally on Monday and Tuesday, you fast and avoid meat on Wednesday, you live it up on Thursday, then it’s back to tuna fish sandwiches on Friday and Saturday. Sunday’s a feast day, so you can loosen the belt a bit.

Congratulations, you’re practicing intermittent fasting! Diets based on intermittent fasting are all the rage these days in the health and fitness industry, with most programs focusing on eating and fasting on a regular cycle—be that eating one day and fasting the next, eating in an eight-hour period and fasting for 16, or something else. If you followed the rules for Ember Days, you’d have fasted three days out of seven. Enthusiasts (and marketing executives) claim that intermittent fasting is ideal for weight loss and healthy living because it mimics the ways human beings ate for hundreds of thousands of years when we were all hunter-gatherers.

And the season of Lent itself—whether it is a meatless Lent or just one of sacrifice—mimics another diet craze, the cleanse. Any doctor will tell you that giving up sugar or caffeine or alcohol or red meat for 40 days can help rid your body of a lot of toxins and get your metabolism and digestion back to an even keel—until it’s Easter morning and you foolishly decide to celebrate the Resurrection by eating a bunch of Peeps.

For Eastern Orthodox churches, more than just meat is forbidden; olive oil, fish, eggs, milk and all other dairy products are, too. The same rules apply on every weekday during Lent.

6. Think Catholicism is too rules-bound, and we should just let people decide when and how to fast on their own? Be glad you’re not Eastern Orthodox.

That prohibition on meat on every Friday? The Eastern Orthodox churches still technically have it on the books—and it applies to Wednesdays, too. And more than just meat is forbidden; olive oil, fish, eggs, milk and all other dairy products are, too. The same rules apply on every weekday during Lent. The Orthodox (as well as many Eastern Rite Catholics) also have three other “fasting seasons” besides Lent: The 40 days before Christmas; a period of between 8 and 42 days for the “Apostles’ Fast” leading up to the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29; and for 15 days in August before the Feast of the Dormition (Catholics’ Feast of the Assumption).

Though perhaps honored more in the breach than in the observance, a strictly-followed Eastern Orthodox diet would mean abstaining from meat and all of the other foods listed above for up to 200 days a year. It makes having no meat on Friday look a little easier, no? And once again, ask your doctor about your newest diet craze—the Eastern Orthodox fast. He or she would love to hear that you eat nothing but fruits, grains, nuts and vegetables for more than half the year.

7. Want to have meat on Friday in Lent? Feast away on a capybara.

Prepare yourself for the most Jesuit story ever.

The capybara is the largest member of the rodent family. Abundant over much of northern and central South America, this plump, pig-sized cousin of the sewer rat spends much of its time in the water, foraging for food (mostly aquatic grasses) and protecting itself from predators like jaguars in wetland areas and semi-flooded savannahs. Its webbed feet and easy-dry fur make its semi-aquatic life easier to manage, and it is still possible to encounter herds of up to 40 capybaras in many South American countries. They’ve even showed up as an invasive species in Florida’s endless wetlands.

When Jesuit missionaries arrived in South America in the 16th century, they found that in some places the locals ate capybara the way Americans eat beef. And so what if it was essentially a huge hamster? The ancient Romans loved nothing more than a baked mouse, and until the 20th century the rabbits Europeans ate on the regular were considered part of the rodent family. But the Jesuit missionaries couldn’t eat capybara during Lent or on other abstinence days—and they were in the awkward position of telling new converts that the capybara was no longer kosher as well.

What to do? As the legend goes, you write to Rome and ask for clarification: “There is a strange animal here, unseen in Europe and resistant to easy classification. It has webbed feet and lives in water, and has a fishy flavor. It’s a fish, right? The newly-baptized locals enjoy this aquatic delight, by the way.”

Rome responded to the Jesuit missionaries in the affirmative: The strange creature that tasted like fish and lived in the water and had webbed feet was indeed to be classified as a fish. From that day on, everyone enjoyed supping on this mighty mouse in a state of grace. Even today, Venezuelans have a custom in Lent of eating capybara, that most jesuitical of all the fishes.

More: Lent / Easter / food

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