Wednesday, June 3, 2020
A History of Holy Days of Obligation & Fasting for American Catholics: Part 2

Archbishop John Carroll, the first Bishop in the United States

Holy Days in Early America:

At America's birth, the holy days of obligation, in addition to every Sunday, were as follows: the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Annunciation, Easter Monday, Ascension, Whitsun Monday, Corpus Christi, Ss. Peter and Paul, Assumption, and All Saints. The fasting days were the Ember Days of each of the seasons; the forty days Lent; Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent; and the vigils of Christmas, Pentecost, Ss Peter and Paul, and All Saints. Abstinence was required on all fasting days in addition to all Fridays (unless Christmas Day fell on a Friday) and most Saturdays.

A few years later on July 8, 1781, Pope Pius VI "dispensed the English Catholics from the observance, according to their ancient custom, of fasting on all the Fridays in the year, excepting those within the Pascal Season. The Pope excepted from his dispensation the Fridays in Lent, Advent, and the Ember weeks." At this time, the new nation of the United States remained tied to the London District. After the American Revolution, the Catholics in the 13 colonies that constituted the new United States of America were under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Vicariate of the London District until the Diocese of Baltimore was established on November 6, 1789. This included the area of Maine that previously had been part of Quebec. 

The history of holy days in the lands purchased in 1803 from France in the Louisiana Purchase is also interesting. Owing to the persecution of Catholics in France after the French Revolution, Pope Pius VII on April 5, 1802, reduced the holy days of obligation for Catholics in France to only Christmas, Ascension, Assumption, and the Feast of All Saints.

Spain, which was in possession of the Louisiana territory since 1763, agreed in 1801 to cede it back to Napoleon. Before even getting possession of the territory, he sold it to the United States in 1803. What is particularly interesting is that the Catholics of Louisiana - whose territory includes areas in modern-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, and Nebraska - adopted the reduced holy days granted to France in 1802.

A Divergence of Holy Days in the 1800s:

As America expanded, there was a divergence in the days of precept. When Florida was purchased by the United States in 1821, its old holy days were maintained. And the same likewise occurred in the Texas territory when it was acquired by the United States in 1845. And this trend continued as America expanded westward. As the American Catholic Quarterly Review, Volume 11 observes:
"In the Second Plenary Council [of Baltimore] in 1866 the feast of the Immaculate Conception was made of obligation as it had been in Oregon, where the feast of St Peter and St Paul had retained its place with the Monday after Easter and Whit Sunday, St John the Baptist, Candlemas, and St Stephen. Pope Gregory XVI in 1837 dispensed all the dioceses then in the United States from the obligation as to Easter Monday and Whitsun Monday and in 1840 from that of the feast of St Peter and St Paul and the same Sovereign Pontiff relieved the faithful from the fast on Wednesdays in Advent."
Uniformity of American Holy Days Established in 1885:

By the time of the Civil War, considerable changes had occurred to these holy days. It was not until the Third Plenary Council that uniformly was achieved, though at the cost of reducing the holy days observed by many Catholics in the New World. Quoting the same article:
"The effort to induce faithful to a more exact observance of holydays of obligation or least so far as hearing mass was concerned had not been successful. A general indifference prevailed. When zealous priests, to give servants and mechanics every opportunity to fulfil the obligation, had Mass celebrated at an early hour to permit them to attend it proceeding to their usual work, it was found that almost the persons to avail themselves of the opportunity would be a pious old women, while those of the very class for whose the Mass was thus offered were scarcely represented by a straggling individuals.
"The Fathers of the Council renewed their petition to the See and His Holiness Pope Leo XIII on the 31st of December 1885 transferred the solemnization of Corpus Christi to the Sunday following the feast and made the holydays of obligation in all of the United States to be thenceforward: The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, Christmas Day, the feast of Circumcision, Ascension Day, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and the feast of All Saints."
The Epiphany and Annunciation were no longer a Holy Day of Obligation in the United States - joining Easter Monday, Pentecost Monday, and St. Peter and Paul as working days.

American Fasting & Abstinence Wanes in the Mid 1800s:

As Holy Days were reduced, so were fasting days. The Third Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1837, with approval of Pope Gregory XVI, dispensed from fast and abstinence the Wednesdays of Advent, except for the Ember Wednesday in Advent.

At this time, complete abstinence was observed on all Saturdays of the year too but over the course of the 19th century, the dispensations from Saturday abstinence became universal. Mara Morrow, author of Sin in the Sixties, illustrates these changes:
"In 1840 the Fourth Provinicial Council of Baltimore asked for a perpetual renewal of an indult dispensing from abstinence on Saturdays, and this indult was renewed for twenty years by Pope Gregory XVI. In 1866, the Second Plenary Council asked that all dispensations granted to the diocese of Baltimore be extended to other American dioceses, but Pope Pius IX preferred individual requests from each bishop in the United States. In 1884, the U.S. bishops who were meeting at the Third Plenary Council decided it would be difficult to pass uniform legislation on the subject of fast and abstinence and hence left it to the authority of provincial councils to determine what was best for their territories. Leo XIII in 1886 granted U.S. bishops the authority to dispense each year from abstinence on Saturdays."
Similarly, Pope Gregory XVI in a rescript from June 28, 1831, granted a dispensation to all Catholics of Scotland from abstinence on Saturdays throughout the year, except on Saturdays that were also days of fasting. Dispensations were granted in many nations, illustrating a weakening in discipline not only in America. On the topic of Saturday abstinence for the United States, an article published in 1966 from the Catholic Northwest paper summarized the American history of Saturday abstinence:

 "In 1833, following the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, the US bishops in a pastoral letter announced with pleasure that Americans from then on would not have to abstain from meat on Saturdays—except or the Saturdays of Lent, ember weeks, and Saturdays which were vigils of major feasts. They said they had appealed to the Pope for a special dispensation because of “the peculiar circumstances under which our congregations are placed,” and that their request “has been, in great measure complied with.” 

With the growing number of Irish immigrants to America in the early 1800s, special attention was given to dispense from the law of abstinence when St. Patricks' Day fell on a Friday. This was done for the members of the Charitable Irish Society of Boston in 1837 and would become customary in the United States.

Pope Leo XIII Continues the Relaxation of Discipline:

Throughout the centuries covered thus far, abstinence included not only abstinence from meat but also generally from eggs and dairy products, though exceptions were granted in various localities." Father Weiser in "Christian Feasts and Customs" clarifies: "Abstinence from lacticinia (milk foods), which included milk, butter, cheese, and eggs, was never strictly enforced in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia because of the lack of oil and other substitute foods in those countries. The Church using common sense granted many dispensations in this matter in all countries of Europe. People who did eat the milk foods would often, when they could afford it, give alms for the building of churches or other pious endeavors."

The laws of abstinence also required abstinence from fish at the meals where meat was eaten on a fast day as well as on Sundays in Lent, as Pope Benedict XIV decreed. This too began to change. Anthony Ruff relates in his article "Fasting and Abstinence: The Story" the changes made by Pope Leo XIII in the document entitled Indultum quadragesimale:
"In 1886 Leo XIII allowed meat, eggs, and milk products on Sundays of Lent and at the main meal on every weekday [of Lent] except Wednesday and Friday in the [United States]. Holy Saturday was not included in the dispensation. A small piece of bread was permitted in the morning with coffee, tea, chocolate, or a similar beverage."
Fasting days were defined as days of one meal only until 817 AD when the monks of the Benedictine Order were granted permission to take a little drink and bread in the evening on account of the labors they performed. The practice of an evening collation on fasting days for all of the faithful was universal by the 14th century. The practice of an additional morning collation was introduced only in the 19th century as part of the gradual relaxation of discipline. Morrow in Sin in the Sixties expands on the concessions given by Leo XIII:
"It also allowed for the use of eggs and milk products at the evening collation daily during Lent and at the principal meal when meat was not allowed. [It] further allowed a small piece of bread in the morning with a beverage, the possibility of taking the principal meal at noon or in the evening, and the use of lard and meat drippings in the preparation of foods. Those exempt from the law of fasting were permitted to eat meat, eggs, and milk more than once a day." 
Consequently, the Baltimore Manual published by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 states: "Only one full meal is allowed, to be taken about noon or later. Besides this full meal, a collation of eight ounces is allowed. If the full meal is taken about the middle of the day, the collation will naturally be taken in the evening; if the full meal is taken late in the day, the collation may be taken at noon. Besides the full meal and collation, the general custom has made it lawful to take up to two ounces of bread (without butter) and a cup of some warm liquid - as coffee or tea - in the morning. This is important to observe, for by means of this many persons are enabled - and therefore obliged - the keep the fast who could not otherwise do so."

The Catechism of Father Patrick Powers published in Ireland in 1905 mentions that abstinence includes flesh meat and "anything produced from animals, as milk, butter, cheese, eggs." However, Father Patrick notes, "In some countries, however, milk is allowed at collation." The United States was one of those nations whereas Ireland and others were not granted such dispensations. The use of eggs and milk during Lent was to drastically change in a few years with the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

On November 30, 1879, Pope Leo XIII added the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception to the Universal Church's calendar, increasing the number of liturgical vigils from 16 to 17, which not including Holy Saturday, consisted of "the eves of Christmas, the Epiphany, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the eight feasts of the Apostles, St. John the Baptist, St. Laurence, and All Saints." At this time, the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception was not yet a fast day. These 17 vigils mentioned were still in place at the time of the writing of the Catholic Encyclopedia in 1909.

In 1895, the workingmen's privilege gave bishops in the United States the ability to permit meat in some circumstances where there was "difficulty in observing the common law of abstinence, excluding Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and the Vigil of Christmas. This workingmen's privilege (or indult) allowed only for meat once a day during Lent, taken at the principal meal, and never taken in conjunction with fish. This particular indult was extended not only to the laborer but to his family, as well. The motivation of such an indult was no doubt to allow for enough sustenance such that the many Catholic immigrants to the United States who worked as manual laborers could perform their difficult, energy-demanding physical work without danger to their health" (Sin in the Sixties).

The Changes of St. Pius X to Holy Days of Obligation:

In the largest change to Holy Days in centuries, Pope St. Pius X in Supremi disciplinæ in 1911 drastically reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation in the Universal Church to 8:
  1. Christmas
  2. Circumcision
  3. Epiphany 
  4. Ascension
  5. Immaculate Conception
  6. Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
  7. Sts. Peter and Paul 
  8. All Saints 
In only 269 years, the number of Holy Days on the Universal Calendar had been reduced from 36 under Urban VIII to 8 under Pius X. Shortly thereafter in 1917, Corpus Christi and St. Joseph were added back, bringing the total to 10. The 10 currently observed on the Universal Calendar are the same as from 1917.

As for the Holy Days observed in the United States, the Catholic Encyclopedia in referencing Supremi disciplinæ noted, "Where, however, any of the above feasts has been abolished or transferred, the new legislation is not effective. In the United States consequently the Epiphany and the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul are not days of precept." On a similar note, Corpus Christi when added back as a Holy Day in the Universal Church in 1917 remained transferred to the following Sunday in the United States as a result of Pope Leo XIII's indult from 1885.

James Cardinal Gibbons

The Rapid Decline in Penance from the Early to Mid 1900s:

We see likewise with the fasting days.

The Catholic Encyclopedia from 1909 in describing that fast immediately before the changes to occur under St. Pius X enumerates them as follows: "In the United States of America all the days of Lent; the Fridays of Advent (generally); the Ember Days; the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost, as well as those (14 Aug.) of the Assumption; (31 Oct.) of All Saints, are now fasting days. In Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and Canada, the days just indicated, together with the Wednesdays of Advent and (28 June) the vigil of Saints Peter and Paul, are fasting days." In 1902, the Holy Father granted a special dispensation for Catholics in England from fasting on the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul in honor of the coronation of King Edward VII.

The days of obligatory fasting as listed in the 1917 Code of Canon Law were the forty days of Lent (including Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday until noon); the Ember Days; and the Vigils of Pentecost, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints, and Christmas. Partial abstinence, the eating of meat only at the principal meal, was obligatory on all weeks of Lent (Monday through Thursday). And of course, complete abstinence was required on all Fridays, including Fridays of Lent, except when a holy day of obligation fell on a Friday outside of Lent. Saturdays in Lent were likewise days of complete abstinence.

Fasting and abstinence were no longer observed should a vigil fall on a Sunday as stated in the code: "If a vigil that is a fast day falls on a Sunday the fast is not to be anticipated on Saturday, but is dropped altogether that year." Before 1917, the fast of a Vigil that fell on a Sunday was observed instead on the preceding Saturday.

Effective per the 1917 Code of Canon law, the Wednesdays and Fridays of Advent were no longer fast days for the Universal Church. Wednesdays of Advent had previously been abrogated as fast days in America in 1837. Now Fridays in Advent likewise ceased being required days of fast not only in America but universally. The Vigil of St. Peter and Paul also ceased as a fast day on the Universal Calendar, although it had already been abrogated in the United States. And eggs and milk (i.e. lacticinia) became universally permitted. And year-round Saturday abstinence, while generally dispensed from in America since the mid 1800s, ceased universally. 

But additional changes quickly ensued even after the liberalization of the 1917 Code. Mara Morrow, writing on the fasting days around this time, states, "In 1917 Pope Benedict XV granted the faithful of countries in World War I the privilege of transferring Saturday Lenten abstinence to any other day of the week, excepting Friday and Ash Wednesday. In 1919 Cardinal Gibbons was granted his request of transferring Saturday Lenten abstinence to Wednesday for all bishops’ dioceses in the U.S. This permission, as well as the workingmen’s privilege, were frequently renewed, but, after 1931, this permission was only on the basis of personal requests from individual bishops."

Further, in 1931 Cardinal Fumasoni Biondi, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, addressed the following to the American Bishops: "The Sacred Congregation of the Council, in a letter dated 15 Oct 1931, informs me that, in view of the difficulties experienced by the faithful in observing the laws of fast and abstinence on civil holidays, His Holiness, Pius XI, in the audience of 5 Oct. 1931, granted to all the Ordinaries of the United States, ad quinquennium, the faculty to dispense their subjects from the laws in question whenever any of the civil holidays now observed occurs on a day of fast and abstinence, or of abstinence" (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 32-416; E.R., 86-65, 190).

Pope Pius XII accelerated the changes to fasting and abstinence as Father Ruff relates: "In 1941 Pope Pius XII allowed bishops worldwide to dispense entirely from fast and abstinence except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, provided that there was abstinence from meat every Friday, and fast and abstinence on these two days and the vigil of the Assumption and Christmas. Eggs and milk products were permitted at breakfast and in the evening."

On January 28, 1949, the United States bishops issued a modified the regulations on abstinence in America again after receiving a ruling from the Sacred Congregation of the Council. Partial abstinence replaced complete abstinence for Ember Wednesdays, Ember Saturdays, and the Vigil of Pentecost.

Samuel Cardinal Stritch

Reductions in Fasting Intensify in the 1950's under Pope Pius XII:

Before 1951, Bishops were able to dispense laborers and their family members from the laws of abstinence, if necessary, under the workingmen's privilege that was introduced in 1895. This privilege of eating meat though excluded Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and the Vigil of Christmas. In 1951, the abstinence laws in America were again revised as Father Ruff summarizes:
"In 1951 the U.S. bishops standardized regulations calling for complete abstinence from meat on Fridays, Ash Wednesday, the vigils of Assumption and Christmas, and Holy Saturday morning for everyone over age seven. On the vigils of Pentecost and All Saints, meat could be taken at just one meal. Fast days, applying to everyone between 21 and 59, were the weekdays of Lent, Ember days, and the vigils of Pentecost, Assumption, All Saints, and Christmas. On these fast days only one full meal was allowed, with two other meatless meals permitted which together did not make up one full meal. Eating between meals was not permitted, with milk and fruit juice permitted. Health or ability to work exempted one." 
As a result, the Vigil of All Saints was reduced to partial abstinence for American Catholics only in 1951.

In 1954, Pope Pius XII issued a special decree granting bishops the permission to dispense from Friday abstinence for the Feast of St. Joseph which that year fell on a Friday. A March 26, 1954 article of the Guardian elaborates: "Bishops throughout the world have been granted the faculty to dispense their faithful from the law of abstinence on the Feast of St. Joseph, Friday, March 19. The power was granted in a decree issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Council, which said it acted at the special mandate of His Holiness Pope Pius XII. The decree was published in L'Osservatore Romano made no mention of a dispensation from the Lenten fast."

1955 saw some of the most significant changes to the Church's liturgy since the Council of Trent. Pope Pius XII in "Cum nostra hac aetate" on March 23, 1955, abolished 15 Octaves in addition to the Octave for the Dedication of a Church, and particular octaves for patrons of various religious orders, countries, dioceses, etc. He also abolished roughly half of all vigils, leading to the removal of the liturgical vigils of the Immaculate Conception, Epiphany, All Saints, and All apostles except Ss. Peter and Paul. The total number of liturgical vigils was now reduced to 7.

Uncertainty existed on whether or not fasting was still required on October 31st, the Vigil of All Saints (commonly called Halloween). The US Bishops requested an official determination from Rome on whether the custom of fasting and abstinence on the suspended Vigil of All Saints had also been terminated. They received a pre-printed notice in a response dated March 15, 1957, stating: "The Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites...looks simply to the liturgical part of the day and does not touch the obligation of fast and abstinence that are a penitential preparation for the following feast day." The US Bishop thereafter dispensed both the fast and partial abstinence law for the Vigil of All Saints.

And effective in 1956 per the decree in Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria, Holy Saturday's fast and abstinence were extended from noon to midnight. Furthermore, on July 25, 1957, Pope Pius XII commuted the fast in the Universal Church from the Vigil of the Assumption to the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception on December 7, even though he had previously abrogated the Mass for the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception.

On a separate note, in both 1953 and 1957 Pope Pius XII altered the more ancient Eucharistic Fast, and in 1957 introduced the practice of allowing Masses to be offered on Sunday evenings.

On October 9, 1958, Pope Pius XII died. John XXIII was elected and under him, as under his predecessor, changes to Church discipline continued. In 1959, John XXIII permitted the Christmas Eve fast and abstinence to be transferred to 23rd. While the United States, Great Britain, and Ireland kept the penance on December 24, other nations including Canada and the Philippines transferred it to December 23.

The Fasting Requirements of 1962:

By 1962, the laws of fasting and abstinence were as follows as described in "Moral Theology" by Rev. Heribert Jone and adapted by Rev. Urban Adelman for the "laws and customs of the United States of America" copyright 1961: "Complete abstinence is to be observed on all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday, the Vigils of Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Partial abstinence is to be observed on Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays and on the Vigil of Pentecost. Days of fast are all the weekdays of Lent, Ember Days, and the Vigil of Pentecost." If a vigil falls on a Sunday, the law of abstinence and fasting is dispensed that year and is not transferred to the preceding day. Father Jone adds additional guidance for the Vigil of the Nativity fast: "General custom allows one who is fasting to take a double portion of food at the collation on Christmas Eve (jejunium gaudiosum)."

He further elaborates on the significance of the changes that had been made under Pope Pius XII:

"There is no longer any question about the interpretation of workingmen since the new formula makes no difference between manual workers, stenographers, white collar workers, students, seminarians, religious, etc. All may make use of the same privileges. The purpose of these new regulations and important modifications is to enable those who are engaged in hard and exhaustive occupations, to keep the fast by enabling them to eat meat once on (partial) abstinence days. Furthermore, Catholics serving in the Armed Forces, while they are in actual service, and their families too, when eating with them, are dispensed from abstinence except on Ash Wednesdays, Good Fridays, Holy Saturday (the entire day) and the Vigil of Christmas. The Ordinaries of the United States may also dispense their subjects from the laws of fast and abstinence on civil holidays, but they are to exhort the faithful to make some offering, especially to the poor, by way of compensation. Bishops may dispense the entire diocese or any part of it (e.g. a town) for the special reason of a great concourse of people or for one of public health."

The Turkey Indult

It must be further clarified that no "turkey indult" exists in the form many believe, even though many Catholics attached to the 1962 Missal claim a dispensation from meat on the Friday after Thanksgiving, citing Pope Pius XII as the source of the dispensation. The dispensation from meat on the day after Thanksgiving was granted in 1957 in the form of quinquennial faculties given to local ordinaries to dispense from abstinence on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, as stated by Bouscaren in the Canon Law Digest. The quinquennial faculties last 5 years and must be renewed. In 1962 they were renewed but not afterward because there was no need to because of Paenitemini and more importantly because of the November 1966 decree by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), which made abstinence on all Fridays throughout the year "especially recommended" but not obligatory.

Before 1962, the Bishops in the United States did not generally dispense from Friday abstinence on the Friday after Thanksgiving. After the renewal in 1962, more Bishops began to exercise this. In 1963 the Bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas made use of these privileges and dispensed the faithful from meat on the Friday after Thanksgiving:
"By reason of special faculties, His Excellency, the Most Reverend Bishop, grants herewith the following dispensations: from the Law of Fast on the Feast of St. Joseph, Tuesday, March 19; from the Law of Abstinence on Friday, November 29, (day after Thanksgiving) and from the Laws of Fast and Abstinence on Saturday, December 7, Vigil of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception."
Such a dispensation from the law of abstinence was not permanently part of Church law by virtue of it being the Friday after Thanksgiving. While bishops or priests will today dispense from meat on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Pope Pius XII did not permanently dispense meat on that day as many allege. The research of Romanitas Press confirms this.

Nothing is Safe from Change Post-Vatican II:

Shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI issued an apostolic constitution on fasting and abstaining on February 17, 1966, called Paenitemini, whose principles were later incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Paenitemini allowed the commutation of the Friday abstinence to an act of penance at the discretion of the local ordinaries and gave authority to the episcopal conferences on how the universal rules would be applied in their region. Abstinence which previously began at age 7 was modified to begin at age 14. Additionally, the obligation of fasting on the Ember Days and on the remaining Vigils was abolished. Paenitemini maintained the traditional practice that "abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation."

The NCCB issued a statement on November 18, 1966. Abstinence was made obligatory on all Fridays of Lent, except Solemnities (i.e. First Class Feasts), on Ash Wednesday, and on Good Friday. Abstinence on all Fridays throughout the year was "especially recommended," and the faithful who did choose to eat meat were directed to perform an alternative penance on those Fridays outside of Lent, even though the US Bishops removed the long-establish precept of requiring Friday penance. The document stated in part: "Even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we ... hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to church law." And finally, fasting on all weekdays of Lent was "strongly recommended" but not made obligatory under penalty of sin.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law largely took Paul VI's apostolic constitution aside from the modification of the age at which fasting binds. Per the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the age of fast was changed to begin at 18 - previously it was 21 - and to still conclude at midnight when an individual completes his 59th birthday. Friday penance is required per these laws on all Fridays of the year except on Solemnities, a dramatic change from the previous exception being only on Holy Days of Obligation.

Per the 1983 Code of Canon Law, fasting and complete abstinence per these rules are required only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The notion of "partial abstinence," introduced under Pope Benedict XIV in 1741, was also removed. By this point, the days of obligatory fast had been reduced to merely two days.

For a chart comparing 1917 v. 1955 v. 1983 fasting and abstinence, please see Catholic Candle.

Holy Days Further Reduced in the 1990's:

Holy Days of Obligation, which had remained the same in the United States since 1917, were further modified in the latter part of the century.  On December 13, 1991, the United States Bishops issued a directive further abrogating New Years Day (the Circumcision), the Assumption, or All Saints in years when the feast falls on a Saturday or a Monday. And on March 23, 1992, in another reduction, the Bishop of Honolulu obtained an indult from the Holy See and approval from the United States episcopal conference to reduce the Holy Days of Obligation to only Christmas and the Immaculate Conception. With so many holy days reduced, and with priests largely not preaching on the necessity of attending Mass and of abstaining from servile works on them, the faithful have lost the sense of the sacred.

What We Have Lost:

Where has the rhythm and rhyme of the Catholic life gone? What have we gained from this slow erosion of the holy days and fasting days? The American Catholic Quarterly Review laments:
"The long line of festivals has been suppressed. Who has gained by it? The French Revolution seized and used all the property of the Church and the nobles. The poor were to be raised from their abject misery. By work and toil they were to acquire competence. After a century of trial the working class in France are desperate anarchists clamoring again for a seizure of property from those who hold it. Spain seized the Church property and has its discontented thousands. Italy did the same and drives her people into exile as immigrants to foreign lands. The gospel of work is now rejected by the poor. They have had too much of it. They clamor for fewer hours of work for more holydays for higher wages. The time and money they extort by combinations have no blessing both are spent in sensual indulgence. Their families do not gain by them but saloon keepers are enriched. These extorted holydays given by the nineteenth century do nothing to elevate or improve the masses. As a mere matter of political economy it may be asked whether the old time Catholic worker who had twenty religious holydays and spent much of them in ennobling and piety inspiring shrines was not happier in himself more prosperous in his home a more valuable element in the body politic than his modern representative."
Practical Considerations:

Consecration of St. Patrick's Cathedral. The day before a consecration used to be a required day of fasting. Father Dominic Prummer in "Moral Theology" published in 1949 states, "On the day previous to the consecration of a church both the Bishop and the people who ask for the church to be consecrated must fast. This is laid down in the Roman Pontifical."

While no authority in the Church may change or alter any established dogmas of the Faith, the discipline of both Holy Days of Obligation and fast days may change. The days of obligation and the days of penance are matters of discipline, not matters of dogma. Lawful authorities in the Church do have the power to change these practices.

In the observance of the two precepts, namely attending Holy Mass on prescribed days and fasting and abstaining on commanded days, we obey them because the Church has the power by Christ to command such things. We do not abstain from meat on Fridays for instance because the meat is unclean or evil. It is the act of disobedience which is evil. As Fr. Michael Müller remarks in his Familiar Explanation of Christian Doctrine from 1874: "It is not the food, but the disobedience that defiles a man." To eat meat on a forbidden day unintentionally, for instance, is no sin. As the Scriptures affirm it is not what goes into one's mouth that defiles a man but that disobedience which comes from the soul (cf. Matthew 15:11).

On a similar note, bishops could lawfully abrogate the precept of hearing Mass on Sundays and other Holy Days of Obligation. While no bishop may dispense the obligation of honoring the Holy Day, which is a matter of Divine Law ingrained in the Ten Commandments, matters of discipline may change. In the Church, there is a clear distinction between doctrine and discipline.

Yet, even with such a distinction, the Church has historically been wise to change disciplines only very slowly and carefully. As Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once remarked, "It is a long-established principle of the Church never to completely drop from her public worship any ceremony, object or prayer which once occupied a place in that worship." The same may be said for matters concerning either Holy Days of Obligation or fast days. What our forefathers held sacred should remain sacred to us in an effort to preserve our catholicity not only with ourselves but with our ancestors who see God now in Heaven.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves and our own families what we can do, even if not mandated by Church law, to recover these former holy days of obligation and fasting days. Cultivating a devotion to honor the many former Holy Days of Obligation by additional prayer, leisure, and assisting at the Church's official liturgies is certainly to be commended, even if not strictly required by law. Likewise, fasting and/or abstaining from meat and animal products on the forty days of Lent, the days of Advent, the Vigils of feasts, Ember Days, Rogation Days, and Saturdays year-round would be commendable. In a similar manner, observing the Apostles Fast or the Assumption Fast, which are still kept in the Eastern Churches, would also be praiseworthy for a Roman Catholic.

The Church has over time reduced the requirements required under penalty sin but She still implores the Faithful to do more than the mere minimum. But in reality, are we? St. Francis de Sales remarked, “If you’re able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the Church.”

What days can you add? How can you better observe the feast days of the Apostles or the feasts of our Lord or our Lady? How can we fast better - both in terms of the number of days as well as by limiting the food we consume on fast days?

The 1962 Missal and fasting calendar is not the embodiment of Catholic Tradition. Even the practices in place in 1917 under St. Pius X are shadows of former times. To reclaim Catholic Tradition requires a radical return to the Faith of our ancestors and their observances. May those of forefathers and ancestors of ours who are in Heaven and who see the face of God pray for us and for the entire Church Militant to return to the happy days of eras past when the liturgical year was intricately tied to one's life.

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