Sacrifice includes prayer, charity

By Mike Latona/Catholic Courier    |    03.05.2012
Category: Lent and Easter


Do you think current church laws for Lenten fasting and abstinence are challenging? Try going back a couple of generations.

Catholics in the United States are expected to observe two obligatory days of fast during the year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when those ages 18 to 59 may consume no more than one full meal and two smaller ones, with no eating between meals. Meanwhile, the law of abstinence -- which calls Catholics to refrain from eating meat -- applies on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays of Lent for those ages 14 and up.

But before 1966, regulations were much broader. According to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, fasting and abstinence applied not only on the days currently observed, but also on every Saturday of Lent and for a number of other religious observances throughout the year. Further, the law of fasting applied on all days of Lent except Sundays, and the law of abstinence was to be observed every Friday of the year. Whereas fasting regulations applied to Catholics ages 21 through 59, abstinence was to begin at age 7 rather than the present-day age 14.

These edicts remained in effect until early 1966, when Pope Paul VI's apostolic constitution Paenitemini announced sweeping changes, which were upheld when the Revised Code of Canon Law was issued in 1983.

In Paenitemini, Pope Paul charged Catholics to focus more on acts of prayer and charity for their penitential works, while maintaining the option of voluntary fast and abstinence.

Pope Paul also gave the bishops' conferences of the various different countries greater latitude in enforcing these norms. This is reflected in Canon 1253†of the Revised Code of Canon Law, which states: "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."

Although Paenitemini and Canon 1250 call for abstinence on Fridays throughout the year except on holy days, the U.S. bishops declared in November 1966 that abstinence would only apply on the Fridays of Lent provided that other forms of penance would be observed on the remaining Fridays.

Yet the relaxation of certain regulations should not be interpreted as minimizing the importance of special sacrifice during Lent or on Fridays during the year. Indeed, Father Frank Lioi, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Auburn, noted that Catholics are now called to do on their own initiative more penitential acts that reflect the emphasis on "prayer, works of piety and charity, and self denial" as stated in Canon 1249.

Among the many potentially suitable gestures for Lent are the common practices of giving up such pleasures as candy, coffee, alcohol or television viewing; participating in fundraising efforts for local, national and international causes; engaging in private prayer or praying as a family; attending weekday Mass or Stations of the Cross; taking part in parish missions, lecture series or Bible studies; receiving the sacrament of penance; visiting the sick and homebound; and striving to be kinder to others.

Father Lioi added that fasting and abstinence continue to be viable Lenten practices as well, even though they're less often obligatory.

"Pope Paul VI said that 'fast and abstinence have a privileged place' among the forms of penance," he noted.

Father Lioi also stressed that people who are exempt by age from fasting and abstinence should still remain mindful of the importance of self-sacrifice. He cited Canon 1252, which states: "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."

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