The season of Lent is probably best known as the season of fasting or the season of “giving something up.” During Lent, the custom is to give something up as a sacrifice until Easter begins. In addition, Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent and fast from food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Use the information on this page as a guide to your Lenten fast. Fasting during Lent can bring up a number of questions about this Catholic spiritual practice, and this guide should help you understand religious fasting more deeply.

Why We Fast during Lent

Msgr. Charles Murphy, the author of The Spirituality of Fasting, defines this Catholic spiritual practice in the following way:

“Religious fasting first of all is an act of humility before God, a penitential expression of our need for conversion from sin and selfishness. Its aim is nothing less than helping us to become more loving persons, loving God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. Its purpose therefore is the trans­formation of our total being—mind, body, and spirit.”

Msgr. Charles Murphy, The Spirituality of Fasting, pp. ix-x

In other words, fasting during Lent is not meant to make us feel bad or to prove to ourselves that we are strong enough to resist temptations. Fasting is meant to make us more loving persons. When we fast for a religious purpose, we do so in order to be transformed in God's grace.

“Fasting,” Msgr. Murphy writes, “cannot achieve these aims unless its focus is on God in prayer and not on ourselves.” The temptation during Lent is to publicly display our ability to resist temptation during Lent, but this way of fasting will not bear spiritual fruit. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

Matthew 6:16-18

Catholic Fasting and Abstinence Rules

Recognizing that religious fasting is a way for us to express our need for conversion from sin and selfishness, the Roman Catholic Church prescribes the following kinds of fasts during the season of Lent:

Ash Wednesday & Good Friday

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence, which means:

  • No meat (age 14 and older)
  • One full meal and two smaller meals (snacks) that together do not equal the size of a full meal (ages 18 to 59)

Fridays During Lent

On all Fridays during Lent, Roman Catholics abstain from eating meat.

Other Fridays during the Year

Believe it or not, according to Roman Catholic canon law, every Friday is set aside as a day of weekly abstinence from meat. Local bishops, however, can make exception to this obligation, which is why Catholics in the United States eat meat on Fridays outside of Lent.

Nevertheless, according to the 1966 pastoral statement on fasting and abstinence, Fridays are still meant to be days of special penitential observance in remembrance of Christ's passion and death on the cross.

“Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year,” according to the document.

So, while not obligated to fast on all Fridays, Catholics are encouraged by their own free will to abstain from meat or make some other act of penitence as an “outward sign of inward spiritual values.”

This message certainly echoes the words of St. Francis de Sales, who wrote in his Introduction to the Devout Life:

“If you are able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the Church, for besides the ordinary effect of fasting in raising the mind, subduing the flesh, confirming goodness, and obtaining a heavenly reward, it is also a great matter to be able to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole body subject to the law of the Spirit; and although we may be able to do but little, the enemy nevertheless stands more in awe of those whom he knows can fast.”

St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Chapter 23

Making Sure Fasting during Lent Is a Spiritual Experience

Msgr. Charles Murphy's book The Spirituality of Fasting is rich with wisdom and detailed reflection on the importance and impact of fasting on the lives of Christians to take part in it's practice.

Msgr. Murphy traces the practice and beliefs about fasting throughout the Old and New Testaments and throughout the Church's history until now. He looks closely at the writings of saints and theologians like Origen, St. Anthony of the Desert, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Bl. John Henry Newman, and even Bl. John Paul II's theology of the body.

Among his many points about the spirituality of fasting are:

  • Fasting in the context of the Lord's Prayer
  • How fasting beautifully expresses prayer in bodily form
  • How fasting can be used in the fight against temptation
  • How fasting leads us into solidarity with the poor

Msgr. Murphy also provides a four-part, practical program for fasting. This program takes fasting to a whole new level. With his simple, practical suggestions of integrating Lectio Divina, the Examen, and other spiritual practices individuals are sure to transform this Lenten obligation into a transformative experience.

From Fasting to Feasting

In her book, Cravings, Mary DeTurris Poust latches on to a crucial idea in Msgr. Murphy's book: we fast to feast.

In order to ensure that fasting is done as a spiritual act, we should keep in mind the ultimate goal of the fast is the feast.

“We fast not just for fasting’s sake, but to be able to feast, to live even in the present with great pleasure and a joy that lasts. . . As we have seen, Christian fast­ing is not based upon a distaste for food as such, as a dan­gerous luxury, or upon a hatred of our bodily selves and self-punishment. We fast to feast.”

Msgr. Charles Murphy, The Spirituality of Fasting, p. 103-104

Just as Lent leads into the joy of Easter, a fast leads into the joy of a feast. Let us not forget this goal of fasting during Lent.

DeTurris Poust concludes her chapter on fasting and feasting with this prayerful meditation:

So much of life
is out of balance today.
Too much, too little,
too caught up in the whirlwind.
The world insists we need
more, more, more, more,
pushing us to grab all we can.
But wait. Slow down. Stop.
There is another way,
a better way, the only way.
Only by emptying ourselves out
before God will we find
fullness within ourselves.

May we all find fullness, this season of Lent, as we fast and give things up in preparation for Easter.

Eating Creatively While Abstaining from Meat

During a past Lenten season, Ave Maria Press reached out to the Catholic community and staff in search of soup recipes that could be used during the season of Lent. The campaign was called “40 Days of Soup” and it is still available with all 40+ recipes and Lenten reflections.

You can find links to all forty soup recipes here at the Ave Maria Press website:

(photo credit: tk_five_0, used under Creative Commons)

The Spirituality of Fasting
Cravings (eBook)