16 September 2017

The Eucharistic Fast

Some time ago, as I was talking to one of the Russian Orthodox clergy here in Oxford, I was interested to hear that the Orthodox, when, during Lent, they receive Holy Communion at an evening Liturgy of the Presanctified, are only nowadays expected to fast from midday (I hope I've got that right). It brought home to me that it is not only the West which, since the time of Pius XII, has felt that a discipline of fasting (which was apparently manageable to a European peasantry that toiled all day beneath the sun at their subsistence agriculture) is too much for our own soft culture.

But enough of grumps. I want to advance the notion that a Hermeneutic of Continuity might incline us to reconsider our practice of the Eucharistic Fast; which Pius XII first reduced to three hours and then Blessed Paul VI reduced to one hour. And that is one hour before the time of Communion, not one hour before the beginning of Mass. And recent legislation has permitted binating clergy on Sundays to snack between Masses even if that cuts into the one hour. To all intents and purposes, the Fast has been abolished.

When I retired to Devon at the age of sixty, I found myself not infrequently saying three Masses on Sunday morning (trinating! I took it that unreprobated custom and pastoral necessity justified this rather iffy practice). I continued my habit of fasting until after the third Mass ... which meant until about 12.30. And I am one whom gluttony has rendered self-indulgent and unfit. I'm not boasting when I say that I never had any problem with it. And, in conversation once with the Syrian Orthodox who came to celebrate their Liturgy in S Thomas's, I discovered that they fasted from supper-time the evening beforehand: as, of course, did their priest: who had just driven from Croydon to celebrate a Liturgy that lasted from 12.00 until after 2.00. It can be done.

I'm not going to rant about the effective reduction of the Eucharistic Fast from a rigid rule to an option, however horrified our Tractarian Fathers would have been by this. I would never write anything to make others feel guilty or to discourage others from going to Mass and receiving the Lord's Body and Blood. But I wonder if we ought to be doing more to move towards a more Traditional and Patristic habit in this matter.

My own practice is: when I am de facto observing the old convention that Mass be celebrated between Dawn and Midday, I observe the old (Western) rule of fasting from the previous midnight. When I am being modern and saying Mass after Midday, I keep B Paul VI's modern rule of a one-hour fast. Is this really so desperately impossible or absurdly illogical?

For what it's worth, Pius XII did urge all those capable of doing so to observe the old rule. And I have heard rumours that, before legislating, he sought confirmation that it was within his power so to legislate. Among Anglo-Catholics, who had spent decades arguing for the Apostolic importance of the Eucharistic Fast, there was consternation. I have been told that the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament asked my erudite predecessor, Dr Trevor Jalland, to explain what was going on.

20 comments:

Simon Platt said...

A few years ago, when assisting at Sunday morning mass at my parish church, I observed that it took about half an hour from the beginning of mass to communion. One would never think of eating during that time. Walking from my home, one had to leave about a quarter of an hour before mass. One would never normally think of eating while walking to church (although the grandmother of another child did once offer sweets to my son and her grandson on the way to the mass at which they were to receive their first holy communion). So I worked out that there was a fifteen minute interval in which the fast could be violated. And then I reckoned that there were relatively few fifteen minute intervals during the day in which food would be taken, and none that could not be worked around.

And so I learned to my regret that to almost all intents and purposes there was no longer any such thing as a Eucharistic fast that Catholics are obliged to keep.

Toma Blizanac said...

Do the Eastern schismatics also abstain from water?

Richard Ashton said...

Muslims do it. Jews do it. Eastern Christians do it. Our Lord did it. We all did it till wicked Henry came along.

Now, not only do we not do it, but we have forgotten that we ever did it, and if reminded we really don't think we need to bother with it.

We still have prayer, we still have good works, but the third route to sanctity has mysteriously disappeared. This must be one of Screwtape's greatest triumphs.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

ABS has received an email from Professor Herman NuDix of Continuity College in Rome; Look, I may agree that Martin Luther was unjustly excommunicated by the bad old church but even I have enough spiritual strength to keep the fast from Midnight until after Mass.

After Mass, I like to have some pasta and vino... O, and I still refrain from meat on Friday because old Catholic habits are the new health

Gregory said...

I made the journey from Eastern Orthodoxy into the Catholic faith, so the topic of fasting stirs up painful memories. As a Roman Catholic, I try to keep the three hour fast. I believe it is beneficial to be physically hungry (or at least not sated) when preparing to receive the Body of Christ. Those curious about Orthodox practice should know that eastern practices are not monolithic: national backgrounds and greater or lesser connection to monasticism affect practice in parish life. I fasted from food from the night before and usually did without water. My wife had difficulties because of blood sugar level issues. A wise priest counselled that food can in a sense act as medicine--it should be used sparingly and not as a loophole. There were many times when food/fasting caused stress to our marriage; I also saw many other believers fall into legalism and/or pride. There were half-humorous discussions about the "unfairness" of vegans fasting during Great Lent and other periods because it was no imposition to them. In short, while Catholics are too lax, the Orthodox go overboard in the other direction. My view is that fasting, like all other rules and pious practices, is useless without charity and without being rightly ordered.

Charlesdawson said...

There is an account, in the autobiography of the late John Card. Heenan, of his ministry in London during the Blitz. Priest, ARP wardens and police worked all night among the bombs, fires and rubble. Once, towards morning, when the Luftwaffe had finally departed, a bunch of weary, begrimed ARP and cops invited Fr Heenan into a still standing public house for a revivifying belt of whisky. He explained that he couldn't, not then, as he was due to celebrate Mass, and when pressed pointed out that he could either celebrate Mass or have a drink, but not both. Which would they prefer? There was a pause, then one of them said, "Landlord, give the priest a cigarette!"
There were giants in those days!
(It is only fair to add that Cardinal Heenan referred with much gratitude to Pius XII's shortening of the fast.)

gsk said...

When I converted aeons ago, I was taken under wing by an elderly Irish woman, and after Mass (at her house for breakfast) she would ceremoniously take me to her sink, pour a glass of water, and say: "Here, dear. come and break your fast."

I have been quite scrupulous about water ever since (meaning, feeling guilty on those occasions when I have some during the night).

Romulus said...

Since I post under a pseudonym, I'll disclose that I follow the practice of your Syrian orthodox friend, for very similar reasons of piety and practical necessity. I understand there are those for whom this would be a hardship or medically impossible, but honestly in my case and at the end of middle age or a little past, it's no more than an inconvenience. Fasting is a mental discipline as much as physical. One just gets on with it.

bombcar said...

One of the things people forget about the long fast is that it provides cover for sinners; if you should fast from the night before, many will not be able to receive, having broken the fast; and therefore someone who doesn't receive is not immediately assumed to be a mortal sinner. This greatly reduces the pressure to "be like everyone else and go up to receive/get a blessing" that you sometimes see.

Sue Sims said...

Reading older Catholic texts, it's clear that fasting from midnight also included abstaining from water. Did this change with the introduction of 3-hour fast, the 1-hour fast, or was it an earlier liberalisation?

Unknown said...

I can write that in the Parish of St Nicholas of Tolemtine in Bristol the majority of us fasted from midnight. I can confirm that the Christian Brother Jasper Chrysostom Ring often told us of his brothers who used to stay up late to have their ham and eggs when a daily fast and abstinence was finished. This was in the 1950's

Anita Moore said...

If we brought back at least the three-hour fast, that would make it a lot easier for people who should not receive Communion to abstain without worrying about arousing speculation amongst their neighbors in the pews as to why they are abstaining. (Not that we should be paying undue attention to whether others are receiving Communion, but people are people and original sin is original sin.)

I am glad however that Pius XII allowed for natural water and medicine within the fast period. All things being equal, I think it is good to make it easier rather than harder for people with bodily infirmities to receive Communion.

Священник села said...

Orthodox (aka 'eastern schismatics') Eucharistic fasting varies in length and intensity, but at the very least it involves not eating from midnight / going to bed until the reception of the Holy Gifts. Non-communicants are encouraged to fast as well. The exceptions involve those who are under the age of seven (or so), pregnant, nursing, or on medications that require something in the stomach. In these cases, it is thought that whatever is eaten should be simple, like crackers... Although fasting from water is customary, I do not think it is scrupulously observed. It is likely that in America, the influence of contemporary Roman Catholic practice and the ambient deep post-Protestant culture have together seriously eroded Orthodox practice in Eucharistic fasting, as well as the observance of fasting days and seasons.

Auriel Ragmon said...

Not mentioned in the Orthodox guidelines referenced above is the requirement that married couples fast from sexual activity the night before they receive communion.
Rdr. James Morgan

Nicholas Mitchell said...

In answer to Sue: the traditional midnight fast was first mitigated in 1953 when Pope Pius XII allowed a 3 hour fast for Communion at evening Masses. The traditional rule still otherwise held but water and medicine were now officially allowed. Also the sick, and others such as those engaged in "enervating labour", those who had to travel to Mass, etc, could get permission to take a non-alcoholic drink up to 1 hour before receiving. In 1957, the 3 hour rule (1 hour for non-alcoholic drinks and no fast for water and genuine medicine) became general. In 1964 the one hour "fast" came in.

mcgod said...

As a child in rural australia I made my 1st Communion when the midnight fasting rule was in force. Some of the old men in the parish at the time told us "little people" they could remember the days of pioneer priest and scientist Fr Julian Tennison Woods riding cross country through scrub on horseback 50 miles or more between masses on Sunday, (they related that their fathers made and effort to get to church just to see if Fr Wood would make it!) He was not only fasting from midnight, but in the two earlier masses of the day he could not consume the ablutions , that was put in a bottle in his saddlebag and consumed at the third mass. One church in the diocese holds and displays the saddle bags. These pioneer priests were prodigious horsemen riding to Mass rain hail or extreme heat. And nowadays we quibble over a glass of water.

John F H H said...

Time, perhaps, to remind younger readers of an anecdote about the late, lamented Lord Halifax (1830-1934).

Allegedly, weekend house-guests at Hickleton Hall, the family seat in Yorkshire, were asked on Saturday evening by the butler, "Holy Communion or breakfast in the morning, Sir?".

Richard Ashton said...

In short, because we love the Lord, we should fast from midnight for a morning communion, or for three hours for a later Mass, with sensible allowances made for individual circumstances.
One way we can grow closer to our Orthodox brethren is to toughen up our ascetical practices. Another way would be to read the little booklet on fasting by Sr Mary David Totah of St Cecilia's Abbey at Ryde.

Dad29 said...

One of the things people forget about the long fast is that it provides cover for sinners; ... therefore someone who doesn't receive is not immediately assumed to be a mortal sinner. This greatly reduces the pressure to "be like everyone else and go up to receive/get a blessing" that you sometimes see.

Dead-on! Same to Anita, who had the same thought. This line of thinking has been argued at length in HPR for several years, to no avail--but it's a very good, humane, and subtle one.

Of course, these days (at least in the States) nobody commits grave sins anymore, based on the near-total lack of Confessions heard--and similar near-total lack of Confession-times available in parishes.

(One exception is the Basilica-shrine at Holy Hill in Wisconsin, where 2 or 3 priests hear continuous confessions beginning 45 minutes before each Mass on weekends. Apparently all the sinners go to that church and only the sinless go to the others, eh?)

Anonymous said...

Of course water. But what about tea? That'd be inhuman.