Father Dietzen: Are Catholics required to fast before taking Communion?
Q. I believe we are still required to fast for one hour before receiving Communion. Many friends, however, tell me there is no longer such a rule, that the pope did away with that regulation years ago. Is there any official directive about fasting before Communion? (Wisconsin)
A. You are correct. We are asked to fast an hour before Communion though, like you, I still encounter many Catholics who seem unaware of this requirement.
By now, only older Catholics will remember that for centuries total fast from all food and liquids was required from midnight until receiving the Eucharist. This worked, even with some difficulty, when no Masses took place after noon.
With the advent of afternoon and evening Masses after the Second Vatican Council, however, fasting from the previous midnight became close to impossible for many people. For this and other reasons, at the end of the third council session in 1964, Pope Paul VI considerably simplified the eucharistic fast.
According to his 1964 decree, people should fast from food and liquids for one hour before receiving Communion. Water does not break the fast and may be taken anytime. The same goes for medications.
Note that this is one hour before actual Communion, not before the beginning of Mass, which means in practice that it normally will involve only a short time of fast before leaving home for Mass, which is a minimal hardship at most.
The reason this modified regulation is still on the books is that it can aid in preparing oneself spiritually and mentally for participating in the offering of the Eucharist at Mass and for receiving Communion. Basically the rule applies to the whole church, though some variations apply in different parts of the world.
Because of their special needs, the discipline is greatly relaxed for the elderly and the sick, and the people who take care of them. For all of these, the period of eucharistic fast is reduced to "about a quarter of an hour."
The church law (Canon No. 919) says simply that older and sick people, and their caregivers, may receive the Eucharist even if they have consumed something during the previous hour. Obviously, the intention is that the sick should be given every possible opportunity to receive holy Communion.
Q. May a Catholic receive Communion more than once a day, for example, at a wedding and then at an evening Mass? (Pennsylvania)
A. For many years Communion was to be received only once a day, but those rules have been considerably relaxed. Today's policy is that Communion may be received twice in the same day, but only when participating in a Mass (see Canon No. 917 and the 1984 decree of the Vatican commission for interpretation of canon law).
Communion should not be received more than twice a day.
The church knows from experience that some Catholics are tempted to treat sacred things, even the Mass, in a superstitious manner. I once knew a lady who piously claimed she attended 11 Masses, at least the "essential" parts, every Sunday.
To prevent people from collecting Communions in a similar fashion was one reason for the church's stricter once-a-day rule in the past, as well as for the broader policy today. It trusts that people's deeper and fuller awareness of the meaning of the Eucharist will discourage any abuse, and at the same time prompt them to receive Communion whenever it is appropriate, even more than once a day.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.