All Old Fasts Are New Again

I read where Steubenville’s Bishop Conlon is urging Catholics to return to Friday fasts. He might have consulted an episcopal document from the last generation, in which the USCCB suggested:

298. As a tangible sign of the need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance, and almsgiving for peace.

From Bishop Conlon’s letter:

I am inviting the Catholic people of the Diocese of Steubenville to resume the practice of abstaining from meat on all Fridays throughout the year, but with a twist. I am asking that this be not only a penitential practice but also an experience of prayer and service. This can happen by connecting abstinence with our witness to the sacredness of human life.

Do you suppose we’ll fall back on the usual fish and shellfish? Or could vegetarian Fridays gain some traction?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to All Old Fasts Are New Again

  1. Liam says:

    A few thoughts:

    I. I think revival of Friday penance should be linked to a revival of Sunday celebration – and that these are less about individual acts than group acts. Why? Because fasting and feasting as solitary indivivuals is hard to sustain – ask Muslims stranded from family and community during Ramadan.


    1. Abstinence from types of foods: There can be an array of penitential abstinence for people to consider (though I realize the behavioralists who caution against too many choices will complain):

    a. the current version of Catholic food abstinence.
    b. also exclude all flesh
    c. also exclude eggs
    d. also exclude animal broths, fats and dairy – by this point this is close to vegan (though strict veganism would also include other animal kingdom byproducts like honey)
    e. also exclude alcohol
    f. also exclude oils – by this point, this is is pretty much the Orthodox tradition for deep fasting
    g. exclude all beverages other the fruit juices and water
    d. exclude any foods but a simple staple food like bread, rice or potato – by this point this is close to a so-called black fast

    2. Then there is the issue of fasting from quantity of food (as opposed to abstinence – which we apply to types of foods). The very old Christian fasts were until sundown – like Jewish and Muslim fasts (though the Muslim fast is actually from dawn to dusk). None – midafternoon – then was for centuries the common time to have the break-fast supper. Then noon. Then the idea of evening collation and morning bread/beverage came in.

    One could do both or either. To my mind, this is an ideal thing to consider at a more local level – ideally, diocesan.

    III. So long as no one tries to revive this as a preceptual obligation binding under the penalty of grave sin. Fr Z rants in favor of such an idea, and I of course play dissenter in the combox:

  2. Gavin says:

    Great letter from the bishop. I don’t know WHY I was surprised that the commentariat at WDTPRS would back a FORCED abstinence. What lunacy!

    Bring back practices of fasting and abstinence. Just don’t make it under the pain of sin. Let’s see more of what this bishop had to say!

  3. I think one of the problems of the traditional fasts is that, while superior in many ways, they neglect to deal with the modern situation in regards to the food we get. As a Byzantine, who does have days of strict fast, it can be quite difficult finding something to eat on those days I am not at home and yet have to follow the regulations (you would be surprised at how much dairy and egg products are used).

    I think the better principles would be to find why certain things were considered “fast foods,” and to find a way to integrate that into the modern economy. When people see a fast meaning “a lobster… or two” on a Friday night, the spirit of the fast is lost by pushing the letter.

  4. Would be nice if we could follow the principle without being wildly, ridiculously legalistic about this — unless reading ingredients listings on packages is intended to be part of the penance.

  5. It would also be nice if the food we ate was not mixed with all kinds of unknown ingredients, making it that people need to read labels when eating anything (whether or not if in a fast).

  6. Gavin says:

    I think the East has the right idea on this. Fast as you can, when you can, as you are able. Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon’s line “welcome to the feast, all you who have kept the fast and all you who have not,” would NEVER be uttered by a Western bishop.

  7. Gavin

    It’s that a rather comforting and happy approach? ;)

  8. Liam says:

    Of course, for some people, eating a plain double cheeseburger (small) from McDonald’s would be more penitential than a locovore macrobiotic raw food meal.

    Traditionally, one of the elements of gluttony was delicacy or choosiness regarding ingredients in food.

    In much of Europe, daily peasant food comprised a gruel – first made from barley, then other grains (maize being a welcome addition after Columbus) – or a soup (stale bread being a key part of soup – staled bread was far more valuable as a staple food than fresh, which was more available to those with comfortable means) – or, eventually, the miracle food that fed the Industrial Revolution: the potato. Irish peasants ate many pounds of potatoes a day (boiled, then heaped up and eaten with buttermilk and, in good times, butter).

    In America, fast food occupy some (but not all) of the place of this food.

  9. kylelmeade says:

    I bet vegetarian Fridays will gain traction.

  10. Tony says:

    My wife and I have been abstaining (not fasting) on Fridays for over a year now. We abstain from meat, meat products (like broth), but not eggs.

    We generally eat pasta with tuna sauce, macaroni and cheese, baked fish (not much shellfish), pierogis, etc.

    We decided to do it because we realized that to break abstinence on Friday meant you were supposed to make some other sacrifice. Avoiding the meat was easier :)

  11. JC says:

    Great to revive something that *never went away*. Fridays are *always* days of penance; it’s just that we don’t have to abstain from fish if we do something else instead. My personal favorite, when I’m craving meat on a Friday, is to pray for the chance to help someone ,and God invariably sends me a homeless person to help.

    Cardinal O’Connor called for a return to Fish on Fridays in penance for abortion, and got enough of a movement going that the USCCB actually voted it a couple times–for a few years, it was on the National Shrine calendar, but since it was largely ignored, they apparently stopped.

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