by Angelica Brice, Columnist
While there are a variety of reasons the Church asks the faithful to fast throughout the year, the most common fast, and yet often the most confusing one, is the fast just prior to receiving Christ in the Eucharist.
Current Church law, as of the 1983 code promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II, states that Catholics should abstain from food and drink with the exceptions of water and medicine for at least an hour prior to receiving Communion (Canon 919). It is worth noting that the fast applies only to the hour prior to receiving the Eucharist, not to the start of Mass.
This law has been adjusted several times through history, so let’s walk through some of those changes.
For many centuries, the Communion fast was held from midnight and required everyone, regardless of age, illness, or profession (including medical or public safety personnel with night shifts) to abstain from all food, drink, and medicine if they intended to receive the Eucharist. This also applied to clergy, which could make for very long days for those priests who said multiple Masses in a morning or missionary priests traveling great distances to reach multiple parish churches.
At the time, weekly reception of Communion was much less common than it is today, and so while this fast was much more rigorous, it was not expected of the faithful every week. It is well worth noting that while Our Lord very much desires our reception of the Eucharist to forge an ever-deeper relationship with us, Catholics are only obligated to receive Communion once a year. Our weekly Sunday obligation to hear Mass is to be present at the Holy Sacrifice, not necessarily to receive Communion.
The total fast from all food and drink from midnight on held for centuries until the 1917 code made some minor adjustments. These changes began to allow medicine to be taken by the gravely ill prior to receiving Communion but did not affect the fasting requirements for the vast majority of Catholics. The next step came in the 1950’s when Venerable Pope Pius XII changed the code to allow water and medicine to be taken prior to receiving Communion and reduced the fast from the midnight prior to only three hours prior to reception. Blessed Pope Paul VI further relaxed the law to only an hour fast and priests could now also take food between multiple Masses they were celebrating in a day if the fast could not reasonably be observed (Canon 919.2).
The purpose of the fast is to prepare oneself for receiving the Eucharist, the most holy Bread of Life. The Church asks us to abstain from all food and drink during the preparation time to help us center ourselves on Christ who tells us, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” (Jn 6:55). The Lord, referencing Deuteronomy, reminds us that Christians “do not live on bread alone,” (Mt 4:4, c.f. Dt 8:3). Rather, we are to remember that we must hunger for those things of the next life, not just this life. Jesus praises those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and instructs the faithful to “store up treasures in Heaven, […] for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be,” (Mt 5:6; Mt 6:20-21).
Thus, the fast is not an arbitrary imposition on the faithful by the Church, but rather an invitation not only to better prepare for each singular reception of Holy Communion but also for our entire eternal future after this life. The fast is a reminder that our primary hunger is for union with Christ in Heaven, not the fleeting cares of this world. Earthly food is good, a gift from God, but as with all His gifts, it is meant to direct us towards Him who gave it to us, who sustains our very existence.
In light of all this, one may find it fruitful to reflect on other ways to fast prior to receiving Holy Communion. These ideas are not meant to replace the fast from food and drink, but rather supplement our continuous efforts to better love God and our neighbors. For example, you could go to church a few minutes early to spend some extra time in prayer. You could abstain from mindless internet surfing for some time to prepare your mind and heart to receive Christ. If riding in the car with family or friends, perhaps you could reach out and connect in conversation with the people with whom you will soon worship God.
There are many ways one can prepare to receive Holy Communion through the required one-hour fast and additional voluntary offerings of time and attention. Faithful observance of the law with a genuine desire to meet Christ in the Eucharist will help tremendously in your efforts to better know, love, and serve God.
For more information please consult:
Apostolic Constitution, Christus Dominus, 6 January 1953
Motu Proprio, Sacram Communionem, of 19 March 1957
Immensae Caritatis , 25 January 1973