WHY SHOULD WE GO WITHOUT FOOD BEFORE NOURISHING OURSELVES SPIRITUALLY WITH THE BREAD OF ANGELS?
Central to the observance of Sunday is the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which, among other things, allows us to participate in the glorious Resurrection of our Lord. And an important facet of that participation is the reception of Holy Communion.
“WEAKENING THE FLESH JUST A LITTLE RENDERS THE SPIRIT MORE ALERT”
Because Holy Communion is so sacred and amazing (you are receiving the Risen Christ in the flesh!) the Church has always enjoined some form of fasting prior to it. One of the very first liturgical reforms was instituted by the Apostle Paul after he saw how disastrous it was to have a big feast before instead of after the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:17-34). Over time, the Church came to see fasting as a useful way of mentally and spiritually preparing communicants for the privilege of uniting with Christ and the Church in the Blessed Sacrament. As St Augustine notes, the ascetical practice of weakening the flesh just a little renders the spirit more alert and amenable. Augustine goes on to compare fasting to depriving a highly spirited horse of some of its feed so that, not having the energy to rebel, it will more readily obey the commands of its rider.
A PREVIOUS FAST USED TO BEGIN AT MIDNIGHT
Many Catholics recall the days when it was mandatory to fast from all food and drink, including water, from twelve o’clock the night before in order to receive Holy Communion. Some conscientious folks would even put a sock or bag on their sink tap to remind them in their groggy state not to get a drink in the middle of the night.
THE INTRODUCTION OF TODAY’S ONE HOUR FAST
After Vatican II, Pope Paul VI changed the rules significantly by reducing the fast from food and drink (excluding water) to one hour before Holy Communion. The fast may be further reduced to fifteen minutes for those who are sick.
HE DID NOT NECESSARILY WISH TO ABANDON MORTIFICATION OF THE FLESH
Needless to say, this is much easier than the older tradition, almost too easy. Since the fast is calculated from the reception of Holy Communion rather than the beginning of Mass, one could be gulping down a large burger and fries fifteen minutes before Mass and still receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The Holy Father was trying to make it easier for the faithful to participate in frequent Holy Communion (such as during daily Mass), but he was not necessarily recommending this allowance for everyone, nor did he wish to abandon the practice of asceticism or mortification of the flesh.
IS THERE A BETTER WAY TO PERSONALLY PREPARE ONESELF?
Consequently, many Catholics have begun to wonder if there is a better way to prepare oneself for Holy Communion, with several scholars re-examining the history and value of the Eucharistic fast. One has gone so far as to state that a one-hour fast cannot even be reasonably called a fast since it is physically impossible to experience hunger within one hour of eating a meal. The question can be especially complicated today, since Mass is now celebrated day or night.
FOR THOSE WHO WISH TO PRACTISE A STRICTER FAST: THE “PIAN FAST”
One practical suggestion is to observe the Eucharistic fast put in place by Pope Pius XII on March 19, 1957, the so-called Pian Fast. Although the Holy Father praised the “ancient and venerable” custom of fasting from all food and drink beginning at midnight, he made allowance for a new discipline: no food or alcohol for at least three hours prior to receiving Holy Communion, and no non-alcoholic drink (coffee, soda, etc.) for at least one hour. Water, however, can be taken at any time without breaking the fast. So too can medicine, provided that the person is sick and that the medicine is medicine “in a true and proper sense.” Pius XII’s fast is to “be computed according to the clock, that is, with mathematical precision,” and those who do it instead of the older discipline are to make compensation “by becoming shining examples of Christian life, principally by works of penance and charity.”
The Pian fast can be accommodated to a wide variety of schedules, and it gives the flesh just the pinch it needs to pay attention and to be receptive to the Bread of Angels without the practice becoming an unbearable thorn.
– This article by Michael Foley was published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue April 2013. For subscriptions, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy. [Headings in capitals were added.]