What is the current rule on fasting before communion?
Among the disciplines that we keep in practicing our Catholic faith, one discipline that most people keep habitually, quite possibly without thinking about its deeper significance, is the practice of fasting from food and drink prior to receiving Holy Communion. While this practice has undergone some adjustment over the years (in both its length of time and its severity,) what has remained the same is the opportunity through fasting to grow in our love for Christ. In this column, we will look at both the “black and white” details on this practice and how this discipline is able to bring us closer to Christ.
When it comes to “what” we are supposed to do, the Church’s practice of fasting before Holy Communion dates to as early as the third century, with the universal Church practicing it by the fifth century. In recent times the practice has undergone some significant adjustments. It was not too long ago (within the lifetime of some of you who are reading this column) that one could not eat or drink anything (not even water or medicines) after 12:00 Midnight in order to receive communion the next morning. While I was not alive during these days, I have heard stories surrounding this strict fast that included children not being able to receive their First Holy Communion on the given day for which they were prepared, merely because they had accidentally had a drink of water before Mass (thankfully things have changed.) Some adjustments came in the 1950's, however, reducing the length of time down to three hours of fasting prior to receiving Holy Communion, and lessening the severity of the fast by allowing for water and medicines.
Today’s practice, as reflected in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, goes back to 1964, when Pope Paul VI established the rule on fasting to be for at least one hour from all foods and liquids (exempting water and medicines) before receiving communion. While water and taking any necessary medicines remains permissible within the one-hour time, other liquids (coffee, milk, etc.) or foods (no more chewing gum in church, please) are not permitted. Furthermore, such a fast does not apply to people who are ill or those who care for them, when communion is given in a home or hospital/nursing home, etc. Finally, the “letter of the law” establishes that this one-hour time period is “before receiving communion.”
The “black and white” of fasting having been given, let us think about the spirit of this law – of which there could be many applications. As with all fasting, the fasting before Holy Communion invites us to deny ourselves for love of Christ and for the sake of letting Christ become more and creatures become less. One way to approach the fast prior to Holy Communion is to embrace it as an invitation toward becoming more aware of the greatness of the gift of the Eucharist as our true eternal nourishment. Our fast has the capacity to assist us in opening our hearts to Christ, growing in humble trust that it is he who is our true food. Furthermore, our acts of fasting can be acts of love, as we seek to give ourselves more fully and properly to Jesus, that he might be our all. Thus, in practice, when we come to that time when our fast before Holy Communion is to begin, we can call to mind that our intention is to open ourselves to an even more proper, beautiful, and fruitful reception of Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood, and not simply “because the Church said so.”
I encourage each of you to revisit your habit of carrying out this practice, mindful of the potential that this practice (and other disciplines, for that matter) offers for us to grow in our love for Jesus Christ - and that such discipline is not just for the sake of fulfilling a Church rule.