Greater emphasis now put on piety and spiritual penances
by Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo
Photo Caption: Guests at the Men’s Hostel attend a special Ash Wednesday service March 1. The Lenten season is filled with fasting and prayer, writes Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo. It is “a time of prolonged meditation upon the Passion, with special emphasis upon Christ’s physical sufferings. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)
As Catholics, we are obliged to fast. Nothing can explain better our Lenten obligations than canon law: “All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance observing fast and abstinence. The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Bishops’ 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. 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” (Canons 1249-1252).
Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning springtime. It is a 40-day period of prayer, penance, and spiritual endeavour in preparation for Easter, encompassing the atrocious sufferings, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. “Lent is not an end in itself. It exists only to lead to the paschal feast and so can be rightly understood in the light of Easter. It disposes the faithful to hear the word of God and devote them to prayer and to celebrate the Paschal Mystery,” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n.109).
Little is known regarding the origin of fasting in Israel. The custom was ancient before it entered legislation. It appears to have been practised for a variety of religious motives especially in times of calamity and mourning (Jgs 20:26).
The Catholic Church observes the disciplines of fasting and abstinence at various times each year. This custom had increased especially with the fast of candidates for baptism, as the catechumen had a great deal to do with its practice. The number 40 was suggested no doubt by Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert. The manner of reckoning the 40 days, however, varied in the different Churches. As a rule, the Eastern Church spread Lent over seven weeks with both Saturday and Sunday exempt from fasting, whereas in the West there was a six-week period with only Sundays exempt.
During the early centuries – especially from the fifth century on, observance of the fast was very strict. Only one meal a day, toward evening, was allowed. Flesh meat and fish, and in most places even eggs and dairy products, were absolutely forbidden. Meat was not allowed even on Sundays. However, from the ninth century on, the practice began to be considerably relaxed. The prohibition against fish was removed during the Middle Ages.
In the course of the last few centuries, the Holy See has granted other more substantial mitigations of the law of fasting. Paul VI, in his 1966 constitution Poenitemini, substantially changed the rules and prohibitions of abstaining and fasting by moving to greater emphasis on other forms of penitential works particularly on exercises of piety and works of charity. According to his constitution, abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and on all Fridays of the year that do not fall on holy days of obligations.
The popular idea of Lent, which prevailed until well into the 20th century, was that it was a time of prolonged meditation upon the Passion, with special emphasis upon Christ’s physical sufferings.
My high old age allowed me to experience the decrease in the practice of fast and abstinence in the Church. By the year 1930, I was nearly five years old, and with my siblings I partook of the special diet our Mom – and many other families – imposed not only on those who were obliged to observe the rules, but also to those under 14 years of age. There was a series of long prayers, eating sweet delicacies was prohibited, as was music, and the radio was silent for the whole period.
I hope the very light rules regarding fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are devoutly observed by my readers and they especially examine their conscience, not only with the Way of the Cross, but also by making a sincere confession with true repentance and a resolution to not sin again.