Matters arising: How long is the Eucharistic fast?

Rev. Nicholas Mary C.SS.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

There seems to be some confusion among faithful Catholics as to how long before Holy Communion we should fast. Some say three hours, and some one. Some hold to fasting from the midnight that precedes their reception of the sacrament. What is our obligation in this matter?

It will hopefully be found instructive to answer this question by first looking at the nature and history of the Eucharistic Fast, and then considering the current situation.

The Roman Catechism reminds us that it is “not lawful to consecrate or partake of the Eucharist after eating or drinking, because, according to a custom wisely introduced by the Apostles, as ancient writers have recorded, and which has ever been retained and preserved, Communion is received only by persons who are fasting.”McHugh, OP & Callan, OP, (transl.), The Catechism of The Council of Trent (TAN, Charlotte, NC, 1982), p. 251.

The custom is indeed ancient. Already at the end of the fourth century, St. Augustine traces its Apostolic origin and speaks of its universal observance as matters of uncontroversial fact:

[I]t is clear that when the disciples first received the Body and Blood of the Lord, they had not been fasting. Must we therefore censure the universal Church because the sacrament is everywhere partaken of by persons fasting? Nay, verily, for from that time it pleased the Holy Spirit to appoint, for the honour of so great a sacrament, that the Body of the Lord should take the precedence of all other food entering the mouth of a Christian; and it is for this reason that the custom referred to is universally observed. For the fact that the Lord instituted the sacrament after other food had been partaken of, does not prove that brethren should come together to partake of that sacrament after having dined or supped, or imitate those whom the ApostleI Cor 11:20–29 (St. Paul is referred to as 'The Apostle'). reproved and corrected for not distinguishing between the Lord's Supper and an ordinary meal. The Saviour, indeed, in order to commend the depth of that mystery more affectingly to His disciples, was pleased to impress it on their hearts and memories by making its institution His last act before going from them to His Passion. And therefore He did not prescribe the order in which it was to be observed, reserving this to be done by the Apostles, through whom He intended to arrange all things pertaining to the churches.Letter 54 (“To his beloved son Januarius”) in Philip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1 (Christian Literature Publishing Co., Buffalo, NY, 1987).

St. Thomas Aquinas enumerates three principle reasons why we should fast before receiving Holy Communion:

First, as Augustine says, 'out of respect for this sacrament,' so that it may enter into a mouth not yet contaminated by any food or drink. Secondly, because of its signification. i.e. to give us to understand that Christ, Who is the reality of this sacrament, and His charity, ought to be first of all established in our hearts, according to Matthew, 'Seek first the kingdom of God'(Mt 6:33). Thirdly, on account of the danger of vomiting and intemperance, which sometimes arise from over-indulging in food, as the Apostle says, 'One, indeed, is hungry, and another is drunk (I Cor 11:21).'S.Th. III. Q.80, A.8.

Then he explains the custom of his day:

That this sacrament ought to enter into the mouth of a Christian before any other food must not be understood absolutely of all time, otherwise he who had once eaten or drunk could never afterwards take this sacrament, but it must be understood of the same day; and although the beginning of the day varies according to different systems of reckoning (for some begin their day at noon, some at sunset, others at midnight, and others at sunrise), the Roman Church begins it at midnight. Consequently, if any person takes anything by way of food or drink after midnight, he may not receive this sacrament on that day; but he can do so if the food was taken before midnight.

For most of the Church's history, abstinence from all food and liquid (the so-called "natural fast") from the midnight preceding the reception of Holy Communion was universally observed. However, there were always exceptions to be made, as the Catechism of St. Pius X explains:

Before Communion there is required a natural fast which is broken by taking the least thing by way of food or drink. If one were to swallow a particle that had remained between the teeth, or a drop of water while washing, he might still go to Communion, because in both cases these things would either not be taken as food or drink, or they would have already lost the nature of either. To go to Communion after having broken the fast is permitted to the sick, who are in danger of death, and to those who on account of prolonged illness have received a special dispensation from the Pope. Communion given to the sick in danger of death is called Viaticum, because it supports them on their way from this life to eternity.Catechism of St. Pius X, The Blessed Eucharist, QQ. 38–40.

Exception was also made from time immemorial on Maundy Thursday in those places where Mass was offered in the evening. Liturgical historian Sr Mary Collins, OSB writes:

Once in place, the discipline gained in precision and rigour throughout the medieval period. Some mediaeval legislators ruled that infants at the breast—who according to ancient custom had first received Communion at their Baptisms—were obligated to the fast. Other legislators required a post-communion fast of several hours as well as a pre-communion fast. In some areas, even those lay people who were not communicants were required to keep the communion fast until the priest had communicated on behalf of the Church at the public liturgy of the day.Sr Mary Collins, OSB, ‘Eucharistic Fast' in New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed.) (CUA, Washington, D.C., 2003) Vol. 5, pp. 437–8.

Such local variations over time in the Eucharistic FastOne of the most commonplace of these now obsolete practices was the abstinence from marital relations practised by spouses as a preparation for Holy Communion. The sixteenth century Roman Catechism (op. cit. p. 280) still refers to this practice, long superseded by our modern ideal of frequent, even daily Communion: “The dignity of so great a Sacrament also demands that married persons abstain from the marriage debt for some days previous to Communion.” nonetheless left its substance intact (i.e. the natural fast from midnight), and, notwithstanding the ever-increasing number of grounds given for dispensations from it on account of various changing factors of modern life (e.g. infirmity, labour, or the demands on the clergy), it remained largely in vigour until its mitigation in the twentieth century.For an idea of what dispensations from the midnight fast were given prior to Pius XII's reform, and on what grounds, see Fr J.J. Reed, SJ, Modified Discipline of the Eucharistic Fast in Theological Studies, Vol. 14.2 (1953), pp. 215–241.

This mitigation occurred in several stages:

It can best be understood as a response to the liturgical reform set in motion in 1905 with Pope Pius X’s promotion of frequent, even daily, Communion for the laity. At the time of Pius X’s decree, the Communion fast involved abstention from all food and drink, including water, from midnight prior to the reception of Communion. This discipline, in the context of 20th century socio-cultural realities, was judged to be an obstacle to the pastoral implementation of the ideal of regular lay Communion. Pope Pius XII’s 1953 apostolic constitution Christus Dominus eliminated the prohibition against drinking water; in 1957 he reduced the duration of the fast from food and alcoholic beverages to three hours. [During Vatican II,] Pope Paul VI decreed in 1964 that the Eucharistic Fast was further mitigated, binding the Church to abstaining from all food and drink for one hour before Communion; in 1973 he dispensed the sick and their caregivers from even this limited obligation.Sr Mary Collins, OSB (op. cit.).

The current legislation for the Latin Church is to be found in Canon 919 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law:

§1. A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before Holy Communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.

§2. A priest who celebrates the Most Holy Eucharist two or three times on the same day can take something before the second or third celebration even if there is less than one hour between them.

§3. The elderly, the infirm, and those who care for them can receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have eaten something within the preceding hour.

How should we view this shift within a few years from fasting from midnight to fasting for an hour?

First of all, while the sacred Deposit of the Faith has been revealed once and for all to the Apostles, and can never be changed, added to, or diminished, nonetheless there can be change over time in the devotional and disciplinary practices which surround and reinforce the Church's doctrine. These changes can be for better or for worse, of course, but they are certainly possible in principle. Archbishop Lefebvre writes thus of the changes he had experienced within his own lifetime (1905–1991):

We have never refused certain changes, adaptations that bear witness to the vitality of the Church. In the liturgy, people my age have seen some of these. Shortly after I was born, St. Pius X made some improvements, especially in giving more importance to the temporal cycle in the missal, in lowering the age for First Communion for childrenThe young Marcel Lefebvre himself was of the first generation of children that profited from this change, making his First Holy Communion in 1911. and in restoring liturgical chant, which had fallen into disuse. Pius XII came along and reduced the length of the Eucharistic Fast because of difficulties inherent in modern life. For the same reason, he authorised afternoon and evening Masses, put the Office of the Paschal Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday and rearranged the services of Holy Week in general. John XXIII, before the Council, added his own touches to the so-called rite of St. Pius V.Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, An Open Letter to Confused Catholics(Fowler Wright, Leominster, 1986), p. 38.

Archbishop Lefebvre certainly considered the reforms of Pius XII to have been for the good of the Church. On the contrary, he considered those of Paul VI to have been disastrous, and his battle against them for the last quarter century of his life is known to all. His view on the current status of the Eucharistic Fast is expressed in the following passage from a conference he gave shortly after the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983. Here he distinguishes between those things which are clearly erroneous in the new code (e.g. all the legislation seeking to enshrine the ecclesiology and ecumenism of Vatican II in the law of the Church) and those things which are not matters of Faith:

We are determined to reject this Code, as we have rejected the other books changed by the reform. There are perhaps things that do not affect the Faith, such as the shortening of the duration of Eucharistic Fast, although we maintain a minimum of three hours, whereas before one had to fast from midnight. And many other things have changed; for example, Mass is now celebrated in the evening. We have accepted that too, even the evening Masses, because this does not directly affect our Faith.Conference of His Grace in Montreux, Switzerland (16 March 1983).

The three-hour fast from food and alcoholic beverages and the hour-long fast from other liquids except water and medicine are widely practised within traditional Catholic circles today. This practice is highly to be recommended, though at the same time we must acknowledge that, for better or for worse, the legislation of Pope Pius XII is no longer in vigour, and that of the 1983 Code is. Though the Church cannot validly make laws which contravene God's laws or the Natural Law, when it comes to laws which are ecclesiastical by nature and scope (such as the determination of the Eucharistic Fast), she has the power to change them. To acknowledge that an obligation that has been set by the Church has been lifted by the Church is not the same as to accept, for example, the doctrinal errors contained in the new code, nor even to accept that the lifting or lessening of a particular obligation is a good thing. It is merely to accept the existence of the authority of the lawgiver within its due remit, and that this has consequences in terms of the status of our obligations.

Thus there is no doubt that we are obliged at least to comply with the current prescriptions under pain of sin, even if we might freely choose to do more than they stipulate. Moreover we can only be said to have sinned when we have transgressed a precept which we are truly obliged to obey under pain of sin. This means that whatever Eucharistic fasting we take upon ourselves voluntarily, we are only obliged under sin to that which is mandatory.

As a result we see everywhere in the traditional Catholic world (on notice-boards, in newsletters, on websites, etc.) reminders of the minimum obligation to fast before receiving Holy Communion (i.e. the 1983 legislation) at the same time as we hear exhortations to do more if we can.

In fact, to be able to distinguish between what is of precept and what is of counsel is to resolve the whole question at once: by all means fast from midnight, or from three hours before Holy Communion as you are able. Nonetheless be sure to keep at least the current law, or, if you do not, not to communicate. Do more as you see fit, and with prudence, but do not disturb those that do the minimum in good conscience. Find wanting, if you wish, the laxity of the present law and advocate change with good arguments,See, for example, the case made by canonist Dr Edward N. Peters in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review: 2013/07/furthering-my-proposal-to-extend-the- fast-for-holy-communion/ but do not deny the existence of that law or hold that laws duly abolished still bind under pain of sin. Reject a codification of the Church's laws that contains errors and favours heresy, but do not believe that because it is to be rejected, older, abolished legislation still binds with legal obligation or, still more dangerously, that no laws now bind us at all.

In fine, this is the way in which moral theology navigates the minefield of a Church in crisis and ensures that though many matters will only be settled conclusively when we can rely on the ecclesiastical authorities once more, we can—and must—in the meantime always act in good conscience. †

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