Wednesday, August 19, 2020
The Traditional Fasting Days Kept in Rome

As a follow up to my article "A History of Holy Days of Obligation & Fasting for American Catholics," I wanted to summarize at a high level the change in fasting as seen even in the Eternal City. While the Church has always granted dispensations and allowed for discipline to vary from region to region - albeit far too much in the past few centuries - the Diocese of Rome had previously kept much stricter fasts. 

Fasting Originated in the Early Church

In the Early Church, fasting, which included abstinence as part of it, was widely observed each week on Wednesday and Friday. Some places added Saturday fasting as well, as noted by St. Francis de Sales who writes, "The early Christians selected Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as days of abstinence." One of those places that observed Saturday fasting year-round was Rome. St. Ambrose famously remarked in a letter to St. Augustine: “When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here [in Milan], I do not fast. On the same principle, observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offense by your conduct, nor to find cause of offense in anothers.”

In addition to the weekly fasting, a special fast on Holy Week was also observed in the Early Church. While not as ancient as the Holy Week fast, the Advent fast likewise originated in the Early Church by at least the fourth century. The Catechism of the Liturgy describes the fast leading up to Christmas: “In a passage of St. Gregory of Tours' History of the Franks we find that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors in the See, had decreed in 480 AD that the faithful should fast three times a week from the feast of St. Martin (November 11th) [up] to Christmas… This period was called St. Martin's Lent and his feast was kept with the same kind of rejoicing as Carnival.” In historical records, Advent was originally called Quadragesimal Sancti Martini (Forty Days Fast of St. Martin).

The Catechism of the Liturgy notes that this observance of fasting likely lasted until the 12th century. Remnants of this fast remained in the Roman Rite in the Diocese of Rome in some respect in the form of fasting two days a week during Advent until the 1900s.

The observance of a fast leading up to the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul also originated in the Early Church under Pope St. Leo the Great around the year 461. At the time of St. Jerome, it was known as “Summer Lent,” though it was not practiced under obligation like the fast of Lent itself. While it subsequently fell out of observance in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic Church still observes this fast to some extent. The Roman Catholic Church though maintained the summer Ember Days, which fell during the ancient Apostles Fast, in addition to the traditional fast on the Vigil of Sts. Peter and Paul, until modern times. As a result, only a fragment of the fasting that was originally practiced persisted. 

Finally, the Lenten fast began under the Apostles themselves. The Lenten fast was kept in Rome and elsewhere. St. Augustine in the fourth century remarked, “Our fast at any other time is voluntary; but during Lent, we sin if we do not fast.” At the time of St. Gregory the Great at the beginning of the 7th century, the fast was universally established to begin on what we know as Ash Wednesday. While the name "Ash Wednesday" was not given to the day until Pope Urban II in 1099, the day was known as the “Beginning of the Fast.” 

Historical records further indicate that Lent was not a merely regional practice observed only in Rome. It was part of the universality of the Church. Lenten fasting began in England, for instance, sometime during the reign of Earconberht, the king of Kent, who was converted by the missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury in England. During the Middle Ages, fasting in England, and many other then-Catholic nations, was required both by Church law and civil law. Catholic missionaries brought fasting, which is an integral part of the Faith, to every land they visited.

In 604, in a letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury, Pope St. Gregory the Great announced the form that abstinence would take on fast days. This form would last for almost a thousand years: "We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs."  When fasting was observed, abstinence was likewise always observed.

The Minor Rogation and Ember Days

Concerning the Major Rogation, Dom Gueranger, writing in the late 1800s, mentions the ancient custom of abstinence but not fasting for the Major Rogation in Rome:
Abstinence from flesh meat has always been observed on this day at Rome; and when the Roman Liturgy was established in France by Pepin and Charlemagne, the Great Litany of April 25 was, of course, celebrated, and the abstinence kept by the faithful of that country. A Council of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 836, enjoined the additional obligation of resting from servile work on this day: the same enactment is found in the Capitularia of Charles the Bald. As regards fasting, properly so called, being contrary to the spirit of Paschal Time, it would seem never to have been observed on this day, at least not generally. Amalarius, who lived in the ninth century, asserts that it was not then practiced even in Rome.
Dom Gueranger likewise continues with an account of how fasting and abstinence were kept on the Minor Rogation Days in Rome:
Their observance is now similar in format to the Greater Litanies of April 25th, but these three days have a different origin, having been instituted in Gaul in the fifth century as days of fasting, abstinence and abstention from servile work in which all took part in an extensive penitential procession, often barefoot. The whole western Church soon adopted the Rogation days. They were introduced into England at an early period; as likewise into Spain and Germany. Rome herself sanctioned them by herself observing them; this she did in the eighth century, during the pontificate of St. Leo III. With regard to the fast which the Churches of Gaul observed during the Rogation days, Rome did not adopt that part of the institution. Fasting seemed to her to throw a gloom over the joyous forty days, which our risen Jesus grants to His disciples; she therefore enjoined only abstinence from flesh-meat during the Rogation days. 
While Rome never adopted fasting on Rogation days since these days always fall during Pascaltide, fasting can certainly be done by the Faithful. The Church did though require abstinence from meat, illustrating that even during Pascaltide it is appropriate that we perform some penance.

Like Rogation Days, Ember Days developed early in these times, taking the form that would continue for centuries. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December; the exact days were not fixed but were announced by the priests. The "Liber Pontificalis" ascribes to Pope Callistus (217-222) a law ordering the fast, but probably it is older. Leo the Great (440-461) considers it an Apostolic institution.
By the time of Pope Gregory I, who died in 601 AD, they were observed for all four seasons though the date of each of them could vary. In the Roman Synod of 1078 under Pope Gregory VII, they were uniformly established for the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after December 13th (St. Lucia), after Ash Wednesday, after Pentecost Sunday, and after September 14th (Exaltation of the Cross)

Advent Fast Drastically Wanes

The Advent Fast which began in the Early Church developed over these centuries. The fast which began in 480 began to adopt the same rigor of Lent by the end of the 6th century when the fast was extended to the whole Church and priests were instructed to offer Mass during St. Martin’s Lent, as it was then called, according to the Lenten rite. 

By the 700s, the Lenten observance was shortened in the Roman Rite to four weeks, though other Rites maintained the longer observance. By the 1100s, the fast had begun to be replaced by simple abstinence. In 1281, the Council of Salisbury held that only monks were expected to keep the fast; however, in a revival of the older practice, Pope Urban V in 1362 required abstinence for all members of the papal court during Advent.   However, the custom of fasting in Advent continued to decline.

Fasting As A Whole Rapidly Declines In the Post-Enlightenment Period

Some of the most significant changes to fsating in Rome, and elsewhere, occurred starting in the mid 1700s. On May 31, 1741, Pope Benedict XIV issued Non Ambiginius which granted permission to eat meat on fasting days while explicitly forbidden the consumption of both fish and flesh meat at the same meal on all fasting days during the year in addition to the Sundays during Lent. Beforehand, the forty days of Lent were held as days of complete abstinence from meat. The concept of partial abstinence was born even though the term would not appear until the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Yet even with these changes, Pope Benedict XIV implored the faithful to return to the devotion of earlier eras:

"The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God's glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe."  

The Vigils of the Apostles and various feasts were also held as fasting days for centuries, though which vigils were days of fasting changed over time. By 1893, the only fasting days kept in Rome were the forty days of Lent, the Ember Days, and the Vigils of the Purification, of Pentecost, of St. John the Baptist, of Ss. Peter and Paul, of the Assumption, of All Saints, and of Christmas. This is summarized from the Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome   In just a few years, Rome would abrogate the fast on the Vigil of the Purification and on the Vigil of St. John the Baptist. 

Fasting in Rome in the 1900s

Fast forward to 1917. While often held as an archetype for Tradition, the 1917 Code largely took the concessions granted to America and other nations and reduced fasting practices that were widely practiced elsewhere in the world. With the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, we see a change in the rules of fasting and abstinence for the Universal Church, including the Diocese of Rome. 

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.

The number of fasting vigils (not liturgically observed vigils) was reduced to four. And the requirement of fasting in Advent was also abolished, following the trend of its abolition in places like the United States. Strangely, even the Vigil of Ss. Peter and Paul, the primary patrons of Rome, ceased being a day of fasting even though the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul remained a Holy Day of Obligation in Rome.

Per the 1983 Code of Canon Law, fasting and complete abstinence 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 which are observed in Rome and elsewhere.


Alas, the fasting practices were drastically reduced in the 1900s, even before Vatican II. Recovering Catholic Tradition is not about setting the clock back to 1962. It must entail re-discovering customs and practices like fasting, which saw significant reductions in the decades leading up to the changes to the Liturgy.

Want to learn more about the history of fasting and abstinence? Check out the Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting and Abstinence.

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