The Eucharistic Fast

Christ’s boundless Charity
“The proof of His boundless charity that Christ the Lord left to his Bride the Church, namely, the inexpressible and supreme gift of the Eucharist, requires us to deepen our appreciation of this great mystery and to share ever more fully in Its saving power. Accordingly, the Church, in its pastoral zeal and care, has repeatedly made practical laws and timely statements of doctrine aimed at furthering devotion toward the Eucharist, the summit and centre of Christian worship”. (Immensae Caritatis 1973, Sacred Congregration of the Sacraments)

“The Eucharist is always received by people who are fasting and likewise that this custom is observed throughout the entire world”. (Christus Dominus, Pope Pius XII, 1953)  One of the most ancient and earliest of customs observed by the Church’s priests and faithful a is that of fasting from all food and drink before receiving the most Holy Eucharist. Tertullian, writing in the second century, notes the common custom of Catholics was for the Blessed Sacrament to be taken “before all other food” and this suggests that a practice of fasting was kept from midnight until early morning when Holy Mass would have been said.

This custom became law for the church’s priests when towards the end of the fourth century the Council of Hippo decreed that “The Sacrament of the altar shall be offered only by those who are fasting”. This every growing devotion that the faithful kept as a sign of reverence and love for our Lord’s true presence in the Blessed Sacrament is so noteworthy that by the fifth century St. Augustine “affirms that the Holy Eucharist is always received by people who are fasting and likewise that this custom is observed throughout the entire world.” (Christus Domiunus)

This common practice of keeping the fast from midnight until the faithful went to Mass and received Holy Communion lasted relatively untouched from the second century onwards up until the middle of the 20th century where when following certain strict conditions the faithful or the priest could drink water before Mass as long as they still kept the fast for one hour before Holy Communion. (Christus Dominus)

This dispensation was permitted by the Church because she knew that her children had some legitimate difficulty in keeping the fast from midnight.

But most importantly to allow her children to approach the Blessed Sacrament more regularly. The current law of the Church is to abstain from food or drink one hour prior to Holy Communion, medicine and water are of course allowed.

But why fast at all?
“Abstinence from food and drink is in accord with that supreme reverence we owe to the supreme majesty of Jesus Christ when we are going to receive Him hidden under the veils of the Eucharist. And moreover, when we receive His precious Body and Blood before we take any food, we show clearly that this is the first and loftiest nourishment by which our soul is fed and its holiness increased.” (Christus Dominus) As St Thomas teaches we exist as body and soul and therefore not only is a spiritual preparation needed but a physical one as well. St. Paul reminds us of the importance of making a spiritual preparation, “ Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” (I Corinthians 11:28-29) This reminds us that in order to receive Holy Communion worthily a Catholic must be in a state of grace and believe in our Lord’s True Presence in the Most Holy Eucharist.

The importance of fasting is mentioned throughout the New Testament and the lives of the saints. “Moreover, everyone with experience will recognise that, by the very laws of human nature, when the body is not weighted down by food the mind more easily is lifted up and is by a more ardent virtue moved to meditate upon that hidden and transcendent Mystery that works in the soul, as in a temple, to the increase of divine charity.” (Christus Dominus) To deny the body uplifts the soul, the sacrifice of indulging the body strengthens the souls desire for God and for His spiritual nourishment. For example St John the Baptist fasted and did penance in the desert to prepare himself and the Jewish people for the coming Christ. We see also in the life of St Jean Vianney the power of fasting, who will not recognise the power of his fasting and penance in the conversion of the people of Ars? Our Blessed Lord before He started His public ministry fasted from all food and water for forty days and forty nights which we follow during Lent in order to prepare ourselves for the sorrow of the Crucifixion and the great joy of the Resurrection.

The current law of the church is to fast for one hour prior to Holy Communion. Centuries of Catholic faithful and saints kept the fast from midnight in order to prepare for the coming of our Blessed Lord into their hearts in order to prepare a worthy throne for the King of kings!