04 March 2014

Lenten Penances

The Blessed Sacrament Altar of San Lorenzo fuori le mure (Rome) appointed for the season of Lent

As we begin the season of Lent this Wednesday, we remember that as Catholics we have a duty to do penance in reparation for our sins and the sins of others as well as to foster a proper detachment from the goods of the world.

The Code of Canon Law (can. 1249) reminds us of the importance of penance in the life of the Church:
All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence...
For the benefit of the faithful, below is a a brief listing of the obligations for fasting in the Lenten season.  This is only for Catholics in the Latin Rite, as the Eastern Catholic Churches have their own set of obligations.

Penitential Days of Lent 

Ash Wednesday - Abstinence and Fasting
The Fridays of Lent - Abstinence
Good Friday - Abstinence and fasting
Holy Saturday - No obligation to fast or abstain from meat, but the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council urged that "where possible" the Good Friday penances be extended throughout Holy Saturday until the start of the Easter Vigil that night.  (Sacrosanctum Concilium 110)

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (this year March 5) and ends with the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday (this year April 17).  Although Good Friday is part of the Triduum and not technically a part of Lent, Catholics are obligated to fasting and abstinence on that day.

Who exactly is bound by these obligations?

Abstinence from meat is a requirement only of those who are 14 years old and older.
Fasting is required by all those older than 18 and younger than 60.

Also, even if children are too young to be bound by these requirements, parents are reminded that they have an obligation to make sure these children are taught the true meaning of penance. (can. 1252)

What exactly do abstinence and fasting require?

Pope Paul VI addressed these in his 1966 Apostolic Constitution, Paenitemini:

Regarding fasting, he said: "The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom."

Regarding abstinence, he said: "The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat."

What if I cannot fast on a particular day?

Your pastor always has the power to dispense you from a particular obligation to fast or abstain from meat for a sufficient reason, and substitute an appropriate penance in its place.

Are there days when we do not observe these penances?

We always feast when the church feasts and fast when she fasts.  In some years a solemnity falls on a Friday in Lent (The Annunciation or St. Joseph's Day).  In that case, the obligation to abstain from meat is lifted.  Note that this is true for any solemnity, but not any holy days of lower rank (Feasts or Memorials).  No Solemnity falls on a Friday of Lent this year (2014).

Wait, don't I have to "give something up" for Lent?

While a laudable custom, there is no requirement to give up anything additional during Lent, other than the fasting and abstinence described above.  The Lenten season should be marked by three things:  prayer, penance, and almsgiving.  In this holy season of Lent, Catholics should seek out new opportunities to pray, to detach themselves from the things of this world, and to help their neighbors, especially the poor.  So, by all means, give up that chocolate for Lent!  But also give that money you've saved to the poor and, even better, offer up a daily rosary for all those who suffer the worst poverty of all, spiritual poverty.