Should we fast on Sundays during Lent?

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

I recently saw a post in which someone argued that we should fast even on Sundays during Lent. I think he was incorrect.

His argument was that you don’t hear about people breaking the fast on Sundays until recently. It seems like Lent used to be really hard on every day.

The source to go to on things like this is the Code of Canon Law. Now, St. John XXIII called for a revision of the Code of Canon Law at the same time that he called the Second Vatican Council (and, incidentally, a diocesan synod for Rome). He thought – and I don’t see how one could seriously disagree – that times had changed sufficiently to need some adjustment of Catholic practices. We don’t live in the Middle Ages anymore, in so many ways. (Apart from medicine, I wouldn’t mind going back to the way the Church was then – but that’s irrelevant: that’s not the world we live in.)

The revision he called for gave birth to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, promulgated by St. John Paul II. It’s a great document, easily found online, where you can see what the Church really asks us to do in our time. For example, Book IV is on the Sanctifying Office of the Church; part three of that book is on Sacred Places and Times; Title II is on Sacred Times; and Chapter II is on Days of Penance.

There you can read:

Canon 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

That is, that we do penance is a matter of natural (or divine) law. But then the Church sets aside some ways that we do communal penance, to draw us together. (In fact, Vatican II specifically asked for more communal penance – sadly overlooked. Strangely, the new Code drops the Ember Days, which were precisely communal days of penance.)

Canon 1250 tells us that every Friday is a day of penance, as is Lent. Canon 1251 says, “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” That’s helpful. It tells us (a) we are supposed to use some sort of abstinence from food as a penance on every Friday; (b) this is contradicted only if there is a solemnity – the highest kind of feast, but not just any kind; (c) meat isn’t necessarily the way to do it.

I tell my students, once upon a time, telling people who lived by the shore that they had to eat lobster was like telling them they had to eat bugs. It was nothing fancy; it was penance. But that’s not how it works in the United States today. For many of us, fish on Friday is more like a feast; maybe better to eat vegetarian, a long monastic tradition.

Canon 1252 tells us, by the way, that abstinence from meat (or whatever) is for those ages 14 and up; fasting is for adults (perhaps 18) until 59. Good to know!

Nothing here about Sundays, of course, because now only Fridays are penitential.


But the 1983 Code is a revision of something previous, and harder to access. In 1917 a previous effort was made to codify the law for the modern world. It is called the Pio-Benedictine Code, because it came out under Benedict XV, but its main instigator was St. Pius X, himself a reformer. It’s in Latin, and not as easily available online. I forgive the blogger who failed to check it!

There we learn, in its canon 1250, that abstinence from meat did not mean you couldn’t eat eggs, dairy, and condiments made with fat. Good to know! (That’s not how the Orthodox do it.)

In 1252.3, we find that every day of Lent was a fast day. But in 1252.4, we learn that on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, there is no fasting or abstinence from meat. That’s the Old Code, the hallowed way of the ‘50s: no fasting on Sundays!

Then comes the really exciting part: the 1917 Code has footnotes to the older laws. There was not a Code before 1917. There were lots and lots of rulings. The main ones had been gathered, in the twelfth century, by Gratian, into a book called Gratian’s Decrees. But then alongside that were tons of more recent statements. The 1917 Code tells you about these things.

Gratian is, of course, also in Latin, but a very nice edition is available online. There we learn that in the twelfth century “the fast is not to be lifted in Lent except on Sundays.” Even then. (Gratian also tells us, by the way, that Gregory the Great, in the sixth century, specifically exempted Sundays in Lent too. And he says we distinguish ourselves from some heretics who did fast on Sundays.)

According to the 1917 Code, there was no other legislation on the matter beween Gratian in the twelfth century and Pius X in the twentieth. So be at peace! Enjoy your Sundays!

How do you celebrate Sundays in Lent?

The Mercy of Lent

good-shepherd-2It is Lent in the Year of Mercy. It seems an appropriate time to ask what Mercy is, what Lent is, and why they go together.

People tend to think that mercy means non-judgment – that mercy is the opposite of justice. If that is so, why bother with Lent? Why should I suffer, and why should I repent of my sins, if God doesn’t really care if I’m a bad person? Why should I try hard if God loves me regardless? It seems like Jesus suffered so that we wouldn’t have to; Jesus was good so we wouldn’t have to be.

But this confuses three related but distinct things: mercy, clemency, and unconditional love. God is all three – but they are different.

Clemency means relenting in punishment. Clemency is when you know someone’s committed a crime, they’ve been convicted, and you decide not to punish them. God is clement. He does not punish all our crimes. He does not, in this sense, give us the justice we deserve – or else he would never have come to suffer for us, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:8). “God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Mercy is connected to clemency, but mercy is not clemency. Mercy is more like compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin for “suffer with.” Mercy comes from the Latin “misericordia,” a heart for misery. Mercy’s heart goes out to people. Already this is more than clemency. Clemency lets things go. Mercy lets nothing go. Clemency might be described as not caring – God doesn’t care that we have sinned, it doesn’t matter – but mercy is caring. God does care.

In Greek, mercy (the eleison we sing at Mass) is connected to almsgiving (elemosyne). Mercy gives alms. Mercy reaches out to help.

The Middle Ages saw in the Good Samaritan a classic image of Jesus himself. The Good Samaritan is merciful. He is clement, too, I suppose: when he sees the man bleeding on the side of the road, he doesn’t say, “you deserved it for walking in this dangerous place.” There is clemency there. But clemency alone would lead him to walk away. Non- judgmentalism goes nowhere near so far as mercy.

Mercy pours oil and wine on our wounds, puts us on his donkey, and takes us to the inn. Mercy heals. Mercy is generous. The God who is mercy is a God overflowing with goodness, pouring out his goodness – his oil and wine – on those who suffer.


The mercy of Lent comes out in the Lenten Prefaces at Mass. “By your gracious gift each year your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace.”

“You have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts, that, freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.”

In these prayers, we see Lent as a gift, a reason to give God thanks. Lent is a gift because it is a time of healing. It is a time where we learn to pray better, to live more spiritual lives, to enter more deeply into the mysteries of Christ.

And it is a gift because sin is bad for us. God is clement, he overlooks our sins – but overlooking them doesn’t help us anymore than the bleeding man was helped by the priests who passed by on the other side of the road. Yes, he overlooks our sins – but he does far more. He heals us.

Because sin is sickness. Sin is the absence of love. Sin is the absence of God. We do not want to be left in our sins. We want to be healed.

Lent is a place for discovering that the mercy of God is not to leave us in our sins, but to pour oil and wine on our wounds, so that we can become better. It is a time to discover that penitence is not merely sadness, but a road to happiness. Like a retreat, Lent is a time of joy, because Lent is a time of walking more closely with the happy God.

But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love with which He loved us (even when we were dead in sins) has made us alive together with Christ (by grace you are saved), and has raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-7).

Where is God’s mercy in your Lenten penances?