Sunday, February 7, 2021
At What Age Do Catholics Fast?
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Current Church Minimums

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. Abstinence from meat which previously began at age 7 was modified to begin at age 14. The 1983 Code of Canon Law also changed the age of fast to begin at 18 - previously it was 21 - and to still conclude at midnight when an individual completes his 59th birthday. 

Abstinence beginning at age 14 and fasting beginning at age 18 are the current minimums. There is no terminating age for the law abstinence - it will continue for the rest of a person's life. Fasting which begins at age 18 ends when a person completes his 59th year and turns 60 years old.

The Previous Practice

One of the only positive changes to fasting in the past 100 years was the lowering of the age of fasting to 18. If an 18-year-old can sin, he should be able to fast. The lowering of the minimum incorporated this change into law. Unfortunately, the change of abstinence to 14 from 7 is an immense disservice to the souls of children as this small weekly sacrifice teaches children the value of penance and the importance of a communal penance uniting us throughout the Catholic world.

The previous practice of fasting beginning at age 21, however, has a long history. While the earliest catechisms ever made (i.e. the Catechism of the Council of Trent and the Catechism of St. Peter Canisius) do not mention fasting regulations, subsequent catechisms even centuries ago did.

The Catechism of Perseverance (1849)

Fr. Stephen Keenan's Catechism (1846)

Bp. George Hay's Catechism (1781). The Oldest Mention of the Age of Fasting in an English language Catechism.

Fasting Requires More Than the Legal Minimum

For those Catholics who wish to more closely follow the ancient customs of the Church, Lent is a time of austere penance undertaken to make reparation to God for sin (our own sins and others), to grow in virtue and good works, and to comfort the heart of our Savior much offended by the barrage of sin and filth increasing by the day. Yet, there are very few Catholics who undertake the true discipline of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. 

How many of us are observing all 40 days as true fast days and not just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday?  Yet our ancestors did.  In fact, it was forbidden to eat meat or any animal products (e.g. eggs, dairy, cheese, butter, etc) through all of Lent.  How many of us are making this kind of intense sacrifice?  How many of us are finding the time this Lent to pray the Rosary every day or go to Daily Mass more often or at least pray the Stations of the Cross each Friday?

While we can talk about the minimums required by Church law or previous laws, we have to remember that these are exactly that - minimums. The Church asks for everyone to perform penance according to their own abilities. While those who were ill (among other reasons) were dispensed from the law of fasting, the sick could still perform other penance or even try to observe fasting if they chose. The same is true for children. Encouraging our children to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year and all of forty days of Lent is very worthwhile. And encouraging adolescent children in high school to fast is also very meritorious even though it is beyond the mere minimum. We recall that Our Blessed Mother was pleased by the penance offered by the three young children at Fatima who were far below the age of fasting. Yet, they fasted and would eat foods they did not prefer as extra penance. And this was pleasing to our Lady and our Lord. Let us encourage our children to do the same - all for Jesus. This Lent is the ideal time to start.

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