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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Observing Lent Before Vatican II

By March 12, 2009

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A reader writes:

I was quite young when Vatican II came to the church. Can you tell me what the Lenten regulations were pre-Vatican II? I hear some people say that there was no eating of any animal product (including eggs and dairy) for all 40 days. I hear some people say that you could have meat on Sundays during Lent. One of my aunts said that you had to fast (one large meal per day) for all 40 days. What exactly were the regulations?

This is a great question, and the answer is that all of the things the reader has heard are correct--yet some of them are wrong, too. How can that be?

Let's start with the one thing that the reader--and almost all of the rest of us, too--is certain of: that the rules for fasting and abstinence changed as part of Vatican II. But just as the revision of the liturgical calendar and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae (the current ordinary form of the Mass) were not part of Vatican II (though many people think they were), so, too, the revision of the rules for fasting and abstinence (not just for Lent but for the entire year) coincided with Vatican II but were separate from it.

That revision was made by Pope Paul VI in a document entitled Paenitemini, which "invites everyone to accompany the inner conversion of the spirit with the voluntary exercise of external acts of penitence." Rather than relieve the faithful of the requirement to do penance through fasting and abstinence, Paul VI called them to do other forms of penance as well.

Paenitemini did, however, set new minimum requirements for fasting and abstinence. Down through the centuries, the Church has adjusted the regulations to fit the spirit of the times. In the Middle Ages, in both the East and the West, eggs and dairy products, as well as all meat, were forbidden, which is how the tradition developed of making pancakes or paczki on Fat Tuesday. In the modern era, however, eggs and dairy were reintroduced in the West, though they continued to be forbidden in the East.

My Father Lasance Missal, published in 1945, gives this summary of the regulations at that time:

  • The Law of Abstinence forbids the use of flesh meat and the juice thereof (soup, etc.). Eggs, cheese, butter and seasonings of food are permitted.
  • The Law of Fasting forbids more than one full meal a day, but does not forbid a small amount of food in the morning and in the evening.
  • All Catholics seven years old and over are obliged to abstain. All Catholics from the completion of their twenty-first to the beginning of their sixtieth year, unless lawfully excused, are bound to fast.

As for the application of fasting and abstinence during Lent, the Father Lasance Missal notes:

Fasting and abstinence are prescribed in the United States on the Fridays of Lent, Holy Saturday forenoon (on all other days of Lent except Sundays fasting is prescribed and meat is allowed once a day) . . . Whenever meat is permitted, fish may be taken at the same meal. A dispensation is granted to the laboring classes and their families on all days of fast and abstinence except Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Wednesday in Holy Week, Holy Saturday forenoon . . . When any member of such a family lawfully uses this privilege all the other members may avail themselves of it also; but those who fast may not eat meat more than once a day.

So, to answer the reader's specific questions, in the years immediately before Pope Paul VI issued Paenitemini, eggs and dairy were allowed during Lent, and meat was allowed once per day, except on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent, and before noon on Holy Saturday.

Meat and all other items were allowed on the Sundays in Lent, because Sundays, in honor of the Resurrection of our Lord, can never be days of fasting. (That is why there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday; the Sundays in Lent are not included in the 40 days of Lent. See How Are the 40 Days of Lent Calculated? for more details.)

And finally, the reader's aunt is correct: The faithful were required to fast for all 40 days of Lent, which meant only one meal, though "a small amount of food" could be taken "in the morning and in the evening."

No one is obliged to go beyond the current rules for fasting and abstinence. In recent years, however, some Catholics who have desired a stricter Lenten discipline have returned to the older regulations, and Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for Lent 2009, has encouraged such a development.

If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail at catholicism@aboutguide.com. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

Resources on Fasting and Abstinence:

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April 16, 2012 at 5:05 pm
(1) Jack Karg says:

Awesome post.Really thank you! Will read on…

February 13, 2013 at 11:25 am
(2) Julicate says:

Is not true that fish was recommended to eat because there was such in excess of fish many generations back. That a pope, don’t know his name, made it a rule to eat fish? For that reason I don’t understand why we can’t eat meat if the law was man based?! Do we not eat meat because Jesus died on the cross for us and his flesh represents the meat? Just as the host is his body?

February 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm
(3) Scott P. Richert says:

Julicate, it’s not true that Catholics were required to eat fish because their were too many, or that abstinence from meat has anything to do with a pope who profited from it. (That Saint Peter was a fisherman is irrelevant.)

In the Jewish world in which Christianity arose, fasting meant not only restricting the amount of one’s food but also abstaining from meat. When Christ fasted, He followed those traditions. When His disciples fasted after His Death and Resurrection (and the Acts of the Apostles makes it clear that they did indeed fast), they followed those traditions.

We don’t abstain from meat because it is bad; on the contrary, we abstain from meat because it is good. It is a sacrifice, designed to bring our bodies under the control of our souls, and to remind us that our ultimate goal is not pleasure in this world but eternal life in the next.

February 18, 2013 at 12:38 pm
(4) kathy grant says:

My sisters & I want to know exactly what year were the regulations for Lent changed? None of us remember actually doing the 1 full meal a day bit but we remember our parents doing it. I need exact year!! (A bet rides on this!) Thanks

February 18, 2013 at 2:05 pm
(5) Scott P. Richert says:

Kathy, Paul VI issued Paenitemini, the document which made the revisions, on February 17, 1966. There is no starting date mentioned in the document, but since Ash Wednesday 1966 was February 23 (six days after the document was released), I assume that the changes took effect that year.

October 29, 2013 at 7:52 pm
(6) Maureen says:

So, is breaking these laws a mortal sin (now, or pre- Vatican II)? My parents (fallen away) think it’s absurd that someone would go to hell because of a rule like that. Can’t find proof one way or the other.

March 7, 2014 at 10:05 am
(7) Mr. C says:

Failure to follow the requirements of fasting and abstinence, as officially promulgated at the time, is always serious matter. To rise to the level of a mortal sin additionally requires knowledge and intent.

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