God calls Catholics to live differently than the rest of the world. Sometimes, that means doing to others what you would want them to do to you — one of Jesus’ instructions, known as the Golden Rule. Other times, people may persecute you because of your Catholic faith. There could be seasons of peace followed by seasons of tribulation. But through it all, Catholics must remember to invest in their own spiritual growth to keep their eyes fixed on Christ.
Fasting is one of the examples Jesus set to help us navigate our lives on earth. But what does fasting mean? And how should you fast as a Catholic? In this article, we’ll go over the answers to these questions and more so you can have a better understanding of Catholic fasting rules and why Catholics fast in the first place.
What Is Fasting and Why Do Catholics Fast?
Fasting is the Catholic discipline of reducing one’s food intake. It’s important to note the distinction between fasting and abstinence. While fasting deals strictly with food and eating habits, abstinence is the act of refraining from something that is inherently good, like meat (remove this). Both fasting and abstinence are forms of penance required by the Catholic Church at various times of the year. Often, the two practices overlap, like during Lent.
Lent is a 40-day period leading up to Easter when Catholics around the world participate in fasting and abstinence. Many sectors of Catholicism have relaxed their rules regarding fasting during this period, with some Catholics only fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Traditionally, when fasting for Lent, Catholics would fast for the entire 40 days and abstain from something they enjoy on Fridays and Saturdays.
In contrast to other religious traditions, Catholic fasting involves eating fewer, smaller meals per day than usual. A fasting Catholic will usually only eat one normal meal per day, with a few snacks that should not equal more than a full meal. In other words, fasting Catholics will eat less than two full meals on the days in which they fast. Some Catholics may stick to this regiment, while others might eat less for their own reasons.
With this information in mind, fasting seems much more manageable than the common misconception that fasting means only drinking water for days at a time. Health permitting, you can fast as long as you are physically able, in accordance with your prior fasting experience. The length of the fast will be longer for some people than others. However, make sure you’re fasting for the right reasons, no matter long you do it.
This brings us to one of the biggest questions — with what intentions do Catholics fast? When fasting, we are displaying discipline over fleshly desires. It marks our reliance on God as the answer to every need and reminds us that we are called to serve others — not just ourselves. Catholics fast to show that God is our true satisfaction and that our early desires and needs are temporary.
9 Tips for Fasting Catholics
So, how should a Catholic fast? Jesus intended fasting to be for your spiritual benefit, but it doesn’t have to cause you great mental and physical discomfort. Here are some tips for Catholic fasting that can help you make the most of your experience while still obeying the Catholic rules for this noble discipline.
1. Make Prayer a Part of Your Fasting Ritual
Fasting is a humbling experience. It fully reveals your reliance on God in the midst of your own weakness. When you first begin your fast, you may start feeling irritable, cranky and frustrated. While your first instinct might be to give in to these types of emotional responses, you should instead quiet yourself before God and seek him in prayer.
In Psalm 69, King David describes a difficult situation where everything seems to be going wrong in his life. Even as he fasts, the people around him ridiculed him. It would have been easy for David to lash out against the people and things in his life that were causing him difficulty. He could’ve given up on his fast and put his situation into his own hands. But what did he do instead? Verse 14 shows that David prayed to God for deliverance.
When you fast, you can take inspiration from King David and remember to go to prayer instead of focusing on the bad parts of your life. St. Peter tells us in I Peter 5:7 to give your worries to God because He cares for us. Catholic fasting and prayer go hand-in-hand. Use fasting as an opportunity to communicate with God and enjoy a deepening reliance on Him.
2. Develop a Strategy Before Fasting by Setting Clear Goals
Every Catholic should set realistic expectations for themselves before fasting. If you are a beginner who is expressing interest in fasting for the first time, you should start off slow. Consider fasting one day out of the week or adhering to the preordained fasting days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The last thing you want to do is set a goal that is impossible to attain. Doing so will only cause you extra frustration and possible disappointment if you fail.
It takes time to develop one’s fasting experience. People who can fast for long periods may have started in the same place in which you currently find yourself. A veteran faster may be able to hold their fast for the entirety of Lent because they have more experience. Some may choose to fast every Friday of Lent or on various holy days throughout the year.
Focus on your own personal goals rather than on the ability of others. Fasting isn’t a competition. How often you fast and when you start fasting is a part of your own journey. Set realistic goals for yourself, and you’ll be able to experience the true blessings of fasting.
3. Avoid Temptations
You are going to experience temptations when you fast. Although fasting should be a time when your mind is fixed on God and your relationship with Him, you are only human. Temptations will cross your path and try to make you stumble and fail at your commitment to fasting. Luckily, we have Jesus as our example.
In Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. You may think that the wilderness would be without its temptations, but Satan is crafty. He used Jesus’ own divinity against Him, tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread and even challenge God, His father. Jesus withstood these temptations, completing his fast and demonstrating that even at your weakest, you can overcome temptations.
Your temptation may look different. Yours may be the donuts in the breakroom or your favorite fast food restaurant that you pass on the way home from work. But you must stay strong and keep the faith. First Corinthians 10:13 says that God will provide a way out of any temptation that crosses our path. Even if that means taking a different road home from work, you must avoid temptations at all costs during your fast.
4. Resist Acting Boastful or Seeking Attention
The Bible warns individuals who are fasting against acting in a way that seeks other people’s attention. This concept may seem strange at first. Why would someone want to boast about their fasting? It may be surprising, but looking for attention can be a major temptation for many people when fasting.
Jesus talks about how we should fast in Matthew 6:16-18. He explains that people who want the world’s attention will wear a gloomy countenance and neglect their appearance. People will see their inflated turmoil and ask what’s wrong. Then the person can say that they’re fasting and gain attention and accolades from others.
Jesus wants believers to be humble and meek while they fast. In verse 17, He says you should maintain a good outward appearance while you fast. That way, the experience is between you and God instead of you and onlookers. After all, God is the one who will bless you for fasting with the right intentions. Fast for the approval of God rather than the approval of other people.
5. Stay Busy
Catholics fast to strengthen their spiritual “muscles” and practice physical discipline. Some moments can be more difficult than others, especially for people who have little experience fasting. For first-time fasters and veterans alike, one of the best ways to overcome and avoid the most difficult moments is to stay busy.
Instead of sitting there dwelling on your hunger pangs, try to direct your attention and energy toward something else. Go for a walk. Take a jog. Pull out a pen and paper and write down your feelings. Or, as you read above, you can turn your attention to prayer and seek God as your ultimate fulfillment.
When you stay busy, time will feel like it’s passing faster. You’ll focus more on your activities, making your period of fasting a bit more manageable.
6. Focus on Moderation and Nutrition for Meals
You already know that a regular Catholic fasting program allows less than two full meals per day throughout the fasting period. Being able to eat some food is a tremendous blessing, but you should make sure you’re eating in a way that will help you instead of making your fast more difficult. Here are some fasting tips for Lent at mealtimes:
- Eat nutritious food: When you do eat, get as much nutrition as possible. Consider eating more protein and fats, which provide long-lasting energy throughout the day. Carbs and sugars provide quick spikes in energy, but they could leave you feeling tired and hungry sooner. And of course, be sure to eat foods with the essential vitamins and minerals you need.
- Eat with moderation: When it’s time for your bigger meal of the day, you may want to overeat or indulge in your favorite junk foods to make up for all the time you spent showing self-control. This could provide momentary pleasure, but it could leave you feeling groggy and unhealthy. It will also make your time between larger meals more difficult to manage. Eat moderate portions to stay disciplined during your fast, even at mealtime.
7. Give Money to the Poor and Hungry
One of the best ways to make the most of your fasting experience is to give to those in need. When you feel your hunger pains start to kick in, remember that there are people in your own community who experience hunger on a regular basis. Connect the spiritual side of fasting to your physical reality by making the world a better place through charity.
You’ll spend less money on food during your fasting period. Instead of pocketing the excess and enjoying more wealth, consider investing that money into the lives of real people who are in need. Doing this can help you view your discomfort as something bigger than yourself. When you fast, you’re freeing yourself up financially to make a difference in the lives of the people who need it most.
8. Consider Fasting Outside of Lenten Season
This next tip plays off the idea that how you practice is how you play. If you fast throughout the year, seasons like Lent will feel easy for you. If you only fast a few days of the year, then those times of fasting will continue to be difficult.
Increase the frequency at which you practice fasting to make it a more consistent part of your life. Choose certain days of the week or month to fast, looking to Christ for your true sustenance. The benefits you’ll receive as a result will last far beyond your fasting periods.
9. Understand Your Physical Needs
The Catholic church specifies that some individuals are exempt from fasting during Lent. These include the following:
- People under the age of 14
- Older adults over the age of 59
- Those who must adhere to a stringent diet or eating schedule, including diabetics
- Anyone whose health makes fasting difficult or unhealthy
God wants His people to show their devotion to him through fasting. But you must be sure you are physically able before attempting this discipline. If you are in any of the groups listed above, then you are exempt from the Catholic rule of fasting. It’s best for you to get the nourishment you need to stay healthy so you can continue living your life to the fullest and make a difference in the world for Christ.
Embrace Fasting and Charitable Giving During Lent
Fasting is a noble discipline. It teaches you to rely on God instead of earthly pleasures. It also gives you the opportunity to save money that you can give to Catholic charities to help those in need. At Catholic World Mission, we strive to help communities experience physical and spiritual renewal. It’s through our work and the generosity of our donors that people around the world have lifted themselves from poverty and maintained a heightened quality of life.
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Deacon Rick Medina is the Executive Director of Catholic World Mission and oversees the management of all of Catholic World Mission's projects in over 35 countries. He was ordained a deacon of the archdiocese of Atlanta in 2013. He currently serves at All Saints Catholic Church in Dunwoody, Georgia, and is active in several ministries, including RCIA, baptism preparation, Life Teen, Altar Server group, Grief Share, and Adult Faith Formation.