Q: An inquirer in our parish RCIA program asked why chicken could not be substituted for fish during Lenten days of abstinence. Can you explain the reasons for the preference for fish for the days of abstinence? -- T.W., Garberville, California
A: In the tradition of the Church, laws relating to fasting are principally intended to define what pertains to the quantity of food allowed on days of fasting, while those regulating abstinence refer to their quality.
The law of the fast means that only one full meal may be taken during the day while two light meals are permitted in accord with local custom as to the amount and kind of food.
While the consumption of solid food between meals is forbidden, liquids, including tea, coffee and juices, may be taken at any time.
The law of abstinence prohibits eating the flesh, marrow and blood products of such animals and birds as constitute flesh meat.
In earlier times the law of abstinence also forbade such foods that originated from such animals, such as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, lard and sauces made from animal fat. This restriction is no longer in force in the Roman rite.
Vegetables as well as fish and similar cold-blooded animals (frogs, clams, turtles, etc.) may be eaten. Amphibians are relegated to the category to which they bear most striking resemblance.
This distinction between cold- and warm-blooded animals is probably why chicken may not replace fish on days of abstinence.
This classification can scarcely preclude all doubt regarding the law of abstinence. But local usage and Church authorities usually provide a sufficient basis to resolve problematic questions.
Abstinence was technically stricter in former times. Yet, the actual observance of the law was, and is, confined to such circumstances as carry no insupportable burden.
This is why people who are sick, very poor or engaged in heavy labor (or who have difficulty in procuring fish) are not bound to observe the law so long as such conditions prevail.
Diversity in customs, climate and food prices also modified the law of abstinence.
For example, one indult dispensed people in the United States from abstinence from meat at their principal meal during Lent on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Another indult, issued Aug. 3, 1887, allowed the use of animal fat in preparing fish and vegetables at all meals and on all days. Similar indults were granted for other countries.
Although in past times penitential days and times requiring fast and/or abstinence were more abundant, present canon law (Canons 1250-1253) has somewhat reduced these days.
Canon 1250 states: "The penitential days and times in the universal church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent."
Canon 1251: "Abstinence from eating meat or some other food according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops is to be observed on every Friday of the year unless a Friday occurs on a day listed as a solemnity. Abstinence and fasting however are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday."
The bishops' conference may substitute abstinence from other foods for meat in those countries where eating meat is uncommon, or for some other just reason.
They also enjoy broad authority, in the light of Canon 1253, to "determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part for abstinence and fast."
In the United States, the bishops recommend abstinence on all Fridays of the year. Abstinence is obligatory on all Fridays of Lent.
Abstinence is obligatory after reaching the age of 14; fasting becomes obligatory from age 18 until midnight of one's 59th birthday.
Most Eastern rites, both Catholic and Orthodox, have more demanding laws of fasting and abstinence and retain the prohibition of milk and poultry products.
As described by one reader, the Byzantine tradition, for example, begins the great Lenten fast after "Forgiveness Vespers" on Cheesefare Sunday evening (the Sunday before our Ash Wednesday), with the anointing of the faithful with oil, not ashes.
"Cheesefare" refers to the "farewell" to dairy products in the diet of the faithful for the duration of the Holy Fast. The Sunday before that is Meatfare Sunday, indicating a farewell to meat in the diet.
This continues (as far as practicable for all who receive the Eucharist) throughout Lent. Holy Week is more stringent -- more of a fast than abstinence.
As well, daily celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy is forbidden -- but the faithful receive the Eucharist at the special vesperlike Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, which employs Eucharistic bread consecrated on the previous Sunday.
The motives for practicing abstinence are admirably expressed by St. Augustine in his Sermon on Prayer and Fasting: Abstinence purifies the soul, elevates the mind, subordinates the flesh to the spirit, begets a humble and contrite heart, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, extinguishes the fire of lust, and enkindles the true light of chastity.
This is summarized in the IV Preface of Lent: "Who by bodily fasting suppresses vice, ennobles the mind, grants virtue and rewards" (a literal translation, as the present official version bears little resemblance to the original).
In short, the Church mandates fast and abstinence in order to help free us from the chains of slavery to sin. Rather than an onerous obligation it is a cry of freedom from all that binds us to ourselves and to our passions.
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Follow-up: Picking the Day Lent Begins
Several readers asked for clarifications regarding the start of the Lenten season (Feb. 28) while one or two apparently misunderstood the point I was making.
Some followed my statement that "Most of the Eastern Churches follow the same basic principles but often celebrate Easter on a date different from Catholics and other Western Christians …," by pointing out that "the 21 Eastern Churches do not have 'Ash Wednesday.' This is a peculiarity of the Western Church. Lent begins on the Monday before that event."
It is true that Eastern Churches begin Lent on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. My reference to the "same basic principles" regarded the system for calculating Easter Sunday, not the beginning of Lent.
Several other readers questioned the duration of the Lenten season.
One wrote: "It is clear that, with the liturgical reforms, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday evening. The triduum is not a part of Lent; thus Lent extends for a total of 44 days. If you take out the Sundays, you're left with 38 days, not 40. (You'd have to extend Lent into the triduum, as in the former calendar, to make it 40.) The 1988 circular letter of the CDW [Congregation for Divine Worship], 'Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts,' says, 'The first Sunday of Lent marks the beginning of the annual Lenten observance' (No. 23). If the First Sunday of Lent is part of the 'Lenten observance' (indeed, its beginning) why not the other Sundays? In fact, to get to 40 penitential days you simply have to count Sundays (they are Sundays 'of' Lent, despite what you wrote). But you don't begin on Ash Wednesday, but on the First Sunday of Lent when the catechumens become the elect."
A few lines earlier than those quoted by our interlocutor the same circular letter states: "On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, the faithful receive the ashes, thus entering into the time established for the purification of their souls" (No. 21).
In No. 16 it also clarifies: "All Lenten observances should be of such a nature that they also witness to the life of the local Church and foster it. The Roman tradition of the 'stational' churches can be recommended as a model for gathering the faithful in one place. In this way the faithful can assemble in larger numbers, especially under the leadership of the bishop of the diocese, or at the tombs of the saints, or in the principal churches of the city or sanctuaries, or some place of pilgrimage which has a special significance for the diocese."
I think, therefore, that by saying that Lenten observances begin on the First Sunday of Lent, the document was making a practical pastoral suggestion and did not intend to establish a new beginning for Lent. Still, there is some solid historical evidence for the custom of counting the 40 days from the First Sunday of Lent.
The problem might be solved by distinguishing between the liturgical season of Lent and the 40 penitential days.
As our reader, and the missal, point out, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends when the Easter triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday.
This season includes the Sundays of Lent and thus extends for a total of 44 days.
If however, we take into account the number of days when fasting and/or abstinence is either recommended or obligatory before Easter, then Good Friday and Holy Saturday are also included, but the Sundays are not. We are then left with 40 fast or penitential days between Ash Wednesday and the Easter Vigil.
The absence of fasting on Lenten Sundays does not mean that these days are devoid of all penitential meaning. The liturgy itself expresses this reality by use of violet, the absence of flowers, the omission of the Alleluia and Gloria, and the overall tone of the liturgical texts.
As we saw earlier, the practice of Eastern Churches differs somewhat. Their period of abstinence and fast begins on the Monday preceding our Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 days straight. The following seven days are a special period that includes a more intense fast and other particular observations before Easter.
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