The fourth precept as given by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2043 is “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.” The same paragraph further explains that this precept “ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepares us for the liturgical feasts and helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.”
Of first note in looking at this precept is that we acknowledge “what” these days of fasting and abstinence are – minding that some days are universal (required of all Catholics around the world) while other days may be regional (such as days established in one particular diocese or perhaps in a particular nation) based upon the fitting need for such a day or days. The universal law (given in the Code of Canon Law, paragraphs 1251-1252) calls all Catholics to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from meat on all Fridays unless there is a liturgical solemnity on a Friday. To fast is to consume only one full meal in the given day and not more than two additional smaller meals within that day. Days of fasting are to be kept by those aged 18-59, while days of abstinence are for all who are 14 years old and up.
However, the universal law also offers allowance for national conferences of bishops (such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) to make some adjustments to the universal practice. In the United States, while the practice of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is fully upheld, the practice of abstinence from meat on Fridays has been adjusted, such that on Fridays outside Lent people can fulfill the penitential meaning of Friday by another means (such as additional prayer, community service, or another manner of abstaining from food more befitting to one’s way of life). What remains essential in this U.S. adjustment, however, is that some type of penitential act be offered every Friday – year around. In addition, other days of penance are sometimes asked of us due to a particular circumstance, such as the now regular invitation for American Catholics to keep January 22 each year as a day of penance (as this is the day, in 1973, that abortion became readily available in the U.S. by way of the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision).
In the description of the precept in the catechism, the word “ascesis” is used to describe the purpose of fasting and abstinence. Simply put, “ascesis” describes “self-denial,” but also can refer to training in discipline. When someone is said to live an “ascetic” life, they are seeking to live in total self-denial, choosing Jesus Christ alone, and in particular, denying themselves of immediate pleasures or instant relief in sufferings by denying themselves of longings or cravings for earthly things. Positively, such self-denial is carried out toward belonging to God – relying fully upon His grace. In the same way our own acts of penance (even if only periodically practiced), while they are hopefully clear expressions of self-denial, can have the benefit of training us to rely more fully upon God and be less attached to the world. Finally, this word implies a sense of battling against forces that tempt us away from God toward serving ourselves or toward worldly gain – as it is truly a battle within which we only succeed in by reliance upon God.
Minding that the precepts give the minimum practice expected (in this case, keeping minimally the formally established days of fast and abstinence), might we each remember that regularly practicing self-denial opens us to grow toward perfection in our love of Jesus.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2041 - 2043 gives the brief definition and the official formulations of the five precepts.