From the Pastor: Current Regulations for Lent
For the past few weeks, I have been showing you some of the old regulations regarding fast and abstinence during Lent. Today I present to you some current regulations. You will see quite a difference! Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Constitution, Paenitemini, On Fast and Abstinence, gives us good reasons to continue our Catholic traditions of prayer, fasting, and charity. (Abstinence falls under “fasting”.) It tells us that, although the rules of penance can be changed by the Church, it is God who commands us to do penance. It tells us that episcopal conferences are to establish local norms (more on that later). And it lays out Pope Paul’s reasons for removing the mandate to do much prayer, fasting, and charity: so that we will do it willingly and in accord with the times. The Pope actually states that he wants bishops and priests to promote “extraordinary practices of penitence aimed at expiation and impetration” (beseeching God, especially for mercy, in this context)! “Therefore, the Church, while preserving—where it can be more readily observed—the custom (observed for many centuries with canonical norms) of practicing penitence also through abstinence from meat and fasting, 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.”
Then, in laying out his new norms, he eliminated the traditional forms of penance! With the promulgation of this document, the only days remaining wherein Catholics are mandated to fast and abstain from meat are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The products to be abstained from were also greatly limited compared to the traditions we have seen in the past few weeks. “The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat.” So the animal products which used to be forbidden are now allowed, including “condiments made of animal fat” such as meat gravy and perhaps even bacon sprinkles on top of salads! As for the size of the meals allowed on the two remaining days of fasting, it was left up to local custom! “The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom.” I would observe that our “approved local custom” for the two smaller meals is no longer just a handful of nuts or fruit but is much more likely to be a hefty sandwich or something even more substantial.
I mentioned earlier that our bishops’ conference also issued norms in accord with this document. Within a year our bishops issued a document called, “Pastoral Statement On Penance And Abstinence.” This is a pretty amazing document. After stating that, in union with the above-referenced document, only those two fasting days would be required, it went on to state: “13. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul's Constitution Poenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice. 14. For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting. In the light of grave human needs which weigh on the Christian conscience in all seasons, we urge, particularly during Lent, generosity to local, national, and world programs of sharing of all things needed to translate our duty to penance into a means of implementing the right of the poor to their part in our abundance. We also recommend spiritual studies, beginning with the Scriptures as well as the traditional Lenten Devotions (sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary), and all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of ‘mortification.’" So they encouraged many penitential practices during the whole of Lent and even elsewhere showed that Our Lord separated those sent to hell from those bound for Heaven according to charitable practices (Mt 25:34-40) as they stressed the importance of keeping a holy Lent. But then they made everything optional with the supposition that the Catholic Faithful would find more meaning in doing penance of their own choosing; that they would find penances far more “with the times” than abstinence from meat; that even greater Catholic penitential practices would soon become part of our Catholic identity. They ended thusly, “28. In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. Rather, let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God's people.” I leave it to you to discern if removing the obligations has led to a new birth or not.
I will end with the current (1983) Code of Canon Law, #1251. “Abstinence from meat... is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” So next week, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, in the Year of St. Joseph, there is no mandatory abstinence!
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka