Fasting Before Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Fasting Before Mass

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My pastor has followed the practice of fasting one hour before the beginning of the celebration of the Mass while teaching the faithful that they must only fast one hour before communion. Is there a separate standard for the priest? His fellow priests follow the norm for the laity, fasting only one hour before communion. He intends to continue his practice, but I would appreciate knowing if there is a separate standard and in which document it is located. I did not find anything in canon law. — L.R., Shelbyville, Indiana

A: The current norm regarding fasting before communion is Canon No. 919:

"1. One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception only of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.

"2. A priest who celebrates the Most Holy Eucharist two or three times on the same day may take something before the second or third celebration even if the period of one hour does not intervene.

"3. Those who are advanced in age or who suffer from any infirmity, as well as those who take care of them, can receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have taken something during the previous hour."

Therefore, the only distinction that the law makes between priest and lay person is to mitigate the fast for the priest who has to celebrate multiple Masses.

As mentioned by our reader, the fast is before communion and not before Mass. However, if out of a sense of reverence and devotion a priest or layperson desires to extend the fast beyond the minimum required, this is a praiseworthy custom.

The hour's fast is from all edible food and drink other than water, taken by mouth and swallowed. Chewing gum as such would not break the fast but swallowing the juices and flavors released by the chewing process would do so.

Since the food must be received by mouth, a sick person being fed by a tube does not violate the fast. Nor does any medicine.

The discipline of fasting before communion has a long history, as Pope Pius XII states in his 1953 apostolic constitution, "Christus Dominus":

"From the very earliest time the custom was observed of administering the Eucharist to the faithful who were fasting. Toward the end of the fourth century fasting was prescribed by many Councils for those who were going to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice. So it was that the Council of Hippo in the year 393 issued this decree: 'The Sacrament of the altar shall be offered only by those who are fasting.' Shortly afterward, in the year 397, the Third Council of Carthage issued this same command, using the very same words. At the beginning of the fifth century this custom can be called quite common and immemorial. Hence 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.

"Doubtless this way of doing things was based upon very serious reasons, among which there can be mentioned first of all the one the Apostle of the Gentiles deplores when he is dealing with the brotherly love-feast of the Christians. 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. Hence the same St. Augustine gives this warning: 'It has pleased the Holy Ghost that, to honor so great a Sacrament, the Lord's Body should enter the mouth of the Christian before other food.'

"Not only does the Eucharistic fast pay due honor to our Divine Redeemer, it fosters piety also; and hence it can help to increase in us those most salutary fruits of holiness which Christ, the Source and Author of all good, wishes us who are enriched by His Grace to bring forth."

Before the time of Pius XII the Eucharistic fast was from midnight onward and included water. This also meant that Masses were only celebrated in the morning.

In the above-mentioned constitution the Pope, while stressing the importance of the fast, affirmed:

"It should nevertheless be noted that the times in which we live and their peculiar conditions have brought many modifications in the habits of society and in the activities of common life. Out of these there may arise serious difficulties which could keep men from partaking of the divine mysteries if the law of the Eucharistic fast is to be observed in the way in which it had to be observed up to the present time."

Pius XII mentions some of the difficulties preventing many from receiving Communion. Among them are the shortage of clergy, especially in mission lands, and the pace of modern life in factories and offices which include night shifts. He also desired to open up the possibility of celebrating Mass in the evening on important feasts so that more people could attend.

Thus, among other things he established that water and medicine would no longer break the fast. He also mitigated the fast under certain circumstances. In 1957, with the document "Sacram Communionem," he changed the law again, to require only a three-hour fast.

Pope Paul VI brought in the present discipline in November 1964, and this forms the basis of Canon No. 919.

* * *

Follow-up: Fasting Before Mass [7-19-2011]

Related to the question of fasting before Communion (see July 5), a Malaysian reader had asked: "I noticed many Catholic Christians go to church daily and some even go two or three times a day. They even receive the holy Eucharist at all these Masses that they attend. Please enlighten me as I am conducting training for religion teachers and I would like a very clear stand on this. Reference is made to Canons 915 through 922."

The key canon for this question is No. 917. It states, "A person who has already received the Most Holy Eucharist can receive it a second time on the same day only within the eucharistic celebration in which the person participates, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 921, §2."
Canon 921.2 says: "Even if they have been nourished by holy communion on the same day, however, those in danger of death are strongly urged to receive communion again."

There was a doubt regarding the meaning of the word iterum (which can mean either "again" or "a second time") in Canon 917. The Holy See's body for authentically interpreting laws decided that it meant "a second time."

Thus, a Catholic may receive Communion a second time but only during a Mass. Outside of Mass a second or even third Communion may only be received as viaticum for the dying.

Except in the case of viaticum, one should fast for an hour before both receptions of Communion.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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