Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q1: What is the reason behind not eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Is there any historical background for this? I wonder about the connection between Jesus’ death and not eating meat. Please help me out. — F.A., Ibadan, Nigeria
Q2: Why are we Catholics prohibited from eating meat during Lent? Is there any tradition or biblical basis for it? — D.O., Philippines
A: Similar questions arrive on a regular basis, and therefore our present answer will reuse parts of previous replies, above all from 2006 and 2009.
First, it is necessary to distinguish between the law of fasting which for Roman-rite Catholics applies on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the rules on abstinence from flesh meat which are more frequent.
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 This restriction is no longer in force in the Roman rite.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 white meat such as 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 and applied to every day of Lent. 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 countries such as the United States and Italy, the bishops recommend abstinence on all Fridays of the year. Abstinence is obligatory on all Fridays of Lent. The bishops of the United Kingdom had a similar rule but some years ago decided to return to the traditional practice of abstinence on all Fridays of the year.
Abstinence is obligatory after reaching the age of 14; fasting becomes obligatory from age 18 until midnight of one’s 59th birthday.
Most Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, have more demanding laws of fasting and abstinence and retain the prohibition of milk and poultry products.
In the Byzantine tradition, for example, the great Lenten fast begins 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 purpose of these laws of abstinence is to educate us in the higher spiritual law of charity and self-mastery.
This spiritual purpose can also help us to understand the reasons for excluding flesh meat on penitential days. There was a once-widespread belief that flesh mean provoked and excited the baser human passions. Renouncing these foodstuffs was considered an excellent means of conquering the wayward self and orienting one’s life toward God.
The ascetic and spiritual purpose of fasting and abstinence can also help us to understand why it has always been tied to almsgiving.
In this way, it makes little sense to give up steak so as to gorge on lobster and caviar. The idea of abstinence is to prefer a simpler, less sumptuous diet than normal.
We thus have something extra to give to those less fortunate than ourselves and also train ourselves in freedom from slavery to material pleasures. Even a Catholic vegetarian can practice abstinence by substituting a typical, yet more expensive, element of the diet for something simpler.
In the developed world the vast array of assorted foodstuffs available at the local supermarket make living the laws of abstinence relatively easy. In most cases one can forgo meat and still maintain a simple yet well balanced diet.
However, while being faithful to these laws we must always strive to penetrate the inner reasons for fast and abstinence and not just stay on the superficial plane of rules for rules’ sake.
The spiritual 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: “For through bodily fasting you restrain our faults, raise up our minds, and bestow both virtue and its rewards.”
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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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.