Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church is supposed to have said, “A Church that does not fast is not an apostolic Church.” These words, real or imagined, stand as an apt critique of the current Roman Catholic Church. Catholics no longer practice fasting or abstaining in a meaningful way. Over the past fifty years, the Church has all but forgotten the virtues and power of fasting while the other Ancient Churches still maintain this great practice which connects them with previous Christian generations. As of today, the Latin Rite Catholic Church in the U.S. observes only two days of fasting and only abstains from meat on Fridays during Lent. The Coptic Church fasts for over half of the year, which makes me more inclined to believe Pope Shenouda’s quote is genuine. Before going further, I am not trying to make fasting a litmus test for apostolic Christianity. Moreover, I recognize that there is a real danger of making fasting little more than an idol leading us away from God towards a god of our own making. In other words, fasting for fasting’s sake is useless.
Yet, for some reason, in the West, we have forgotten the spiritual and physical benefits of self-denial. Rightly practiced and taught, fasting can build believers up to better live out the Faith. Along with recognizing its benefits, we need to realize how de-emphasizing fasting has negatively impacted how we practice the Faith, especially when it comes to our feasts. Should we be surprised that Christmas has become more of a commercial exercise when so many, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, no longer appreciate the Advent Season as a time of preparation for the coming of Christ our King and our God? Advent, now and for some time, has become 24 days of pre-Christmas for us to host Christmas parties, get our shopping done, and complain about visiting relatives. Instead of a mini-Lent, Advent has been shorn of its ability to truly prepare us for the twelve days of Christmas that celebrate Christ’s birth, the Epiphany, and His holy family.
Aside from the birthday of Christ, how many Christians know about these other great events in the Christmas Season? Because we no longer truly observe Advent, we no longer celebrate the twelve days of Christmas as intended and nor do we remember these other commemorations of the Faith. As soon as December 26th rolls around, most of us are planning our New Year’s party and getting ready for the year to come. I also believe we can draw a connection between our lack of fasting and the marriage crisis. Marriage, in many ways, is an exercise in self-denial where your needs and your very self die, the better to serve your spouse. In other words, if we can’t expect Catholics to fast from food, a small act of self-denial, how can we teach spouses to die to themselves for the sake of another—the ultimate act of self-denial? This applies to the priesthood as well; I think a plausible connection can be made between our lack of fasting and the priest shortage.
While the Church has lost the ability to fast and sacrifice, the secular world has discovered reasons to practice self-denial. Recently, secular people have been developing the practice of Meatless Mondays across the country. School districts, (for example, the New York City School District), restaurants, and, for a time, some parts of the U.S. government, have implemented or piloted going meatless on Monday. The reason non-Catholics are participating in this initiative has nothing to do with God or religion but is related to environmental concerns or health. While the reasons non-Catholics have decided to abstain may cause some believers to raise their eyebrows, what I find fascinating is that secular people in the U.S. want to better themselves or the world using an age-old practice of our faith. This is a potential point of common ground between the Church and those outside it.
Following the example of those outside the Faith, I think this a perfect time for the U.S. bishops to reintroduce and encourage meatless Fridays throughout the entire year not only to help better the spiritual lives of Catholics but as a tool of evangelization. We may even get non-Catholics to change meatless Monday to meatless Friday, making it easier for U.S. Catholics to practice the Faith. Additionally, the U.S. Church returning to meatless Fridays will unite it more closely to the Catholic Church in England, which has reinstituted this ancient practice. Additionally, we shouldn’t stop at abstaining on Friday but reinstitute a fasting penance on Wednesday as well.
I am not recommending that Catholics fast for half the year like the Copts. That may be asking too much and setting us up for failure, especially in the U.S. However, I think we should try to be more intentional in recovering this ancient practice for our spiritual benefit. Americans today on average are richer than any other peoples that have walked this earth, and we are also the best fed in human history. Unlike poor societies in the past and even around the world today, fasting for Americans would be a token gesture. A gesture, however, that would connect us to our suffering brothers and sisters around the world and through time back to the apostles. We can go further and use the money we save during our fasts to feed the poor here and abroad. Along with the spiritual aspects of fasting, it is an opportunity to train our bodies and minds. Fasting reminds us that we are the masters of ourselves and that food does not control us. Not only do we fast to connect us to the other, but we need to fast—first and foremost during Advent and Lent—to understand, appreciate, and dive more deeply into our feasts and faith.