SDG here (still not Jimmy) with a follow-up thought on fasting (one that could have gone at the end of my "Short Primer on Fasting," but I didn’t want it to get lost).
It is this: Current Church discipline calls for Latin Catholics to fast on exactly two days out of the year, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday — and even on those two days, we are allowed to eat three times a day: one meal and two servings of "some food." Which, really, is not all that much of a fast at all. Those two days are also, of course days of abstinence from meat, along with the Fridays in Lent.
Actually, the law of abstention on all the Fridays of the year still holds for Latin Catholics around the world — but not in the US, where any Friday penance is voluntary. Outside of Lent and Triduum, Latin Catholics are not called to fast, or even, so far as I can tell, particularly encouraged to do so, even on their own. Oh, wait, there’s also the one-hour fast before receiving communion.
It would be one thing if this program of fasting and abstinence were regarded as a bare minimum beyond which Catholics were strongly encouraged to go with voluntary fasting and other regular forms of penance. Unfortunately, such encouragement is sporadic at best if not nonexistent.
This strikes me as — how shall I say it? — lame. Take the rigor of the fasting we actually do: one meal a day, plus two smaller servings of some food, two days out of the year. And a measly hour before receiving communion — even at a fifty-minute Mass, with communion distributed around the 40-minute mark, it would almost be hard to break that fast without actually eating in church.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that for most healthy adults below, say, retirement age, the current law on fasting amounts to a very mild hardship, if that — I would say almost a token act of ascesis rather than any kind of real sacrifice.
This is not to deny that for many people health considerations would reasonably prevent them from attempting even this much self-denial. Those with such conditions should be (and are) excused from any mortification at all. Others whose occupation entails physically demanding labor could find it excessively burdensome to do without regular doses of calories around the clock. Other cases would include pregnant or nursing mothers, Type 1 diabetics and of course children.
Even so, for countless hosts of ordinary, healthy adults, there is no reason why many of us shouldn’t be at least encouraged or even expected to try, say, abstaining from all food on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday — and on other days as well. I don’t necessarily mind putting the bar low for the sake of those unable to try more, but those who can try more should be urged to do so. Concupiscence is real — and tenacious. Our ascesis must also be real, not just a token diminution of four meals a year.
I think it would be wholly salutary if US Catholics were strongly and frequently encouraged to embrace year-round Friday abstinence — if not true fasting — as a voluntary practice. If fasting every Friday is too rigorous, perhaps we might consider a first Friday fast.
For many, fasting can and should mean abstaining from all food and drink except water only, or possibly water and other liquids. A partial fast — eating breakfast but skipping lunch and dinner, or perhaps skipping breakfast and lunch but eating dinner — might be another approach. (Most of us won’t curl up and die if we don’t get our two snacks.) Skipping breakfast entirely on Sunday morning, like Catholics did a few decades ago, seems like a very worthwhile proposal.
There is also the extraordinary discipline of extended fasting, of doing without food for a number of days at a stretch, ideally drinking only water. This is obviously an extraordinary undertaking that it could not be programmatically prescribed to people at large and is not something that nearly anyone would want to do with any frequency — but it’s not out of the reach of many ordinary healthy adults to try it at some point in their lives, or perhaps even to make a regular part of their Lenten practice. (You would want to talk to your doctor before trying this, as well as a good priest or spiritual director.)
Don’t think you could do a total fast for a day, let alone regularly? Don’t think you could do without breakfast on Sunday morning? Give it a try. Risk a little sustained suffering. Think about how Jesus suffered for you. Find out something about yourself — perhaps how weak you are (and therefore how in need of training); perhaps how strong you are (and therefore capable of doing more than the minimum).
Afraid it might give you a headache? Take some ibuprofin or aspirin (the emptiness and boredom of doing without food is enough). Afraid it might make you grumpy? Ah, there’s your chance for spiritual battle. Wash your face and wear a smile when you fast, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Give it a try. Do some penance — extra penance that your confessor didn’t give you and the Church doesn’t require of you. The soul you benefit may be your own — or it may even be someone else’s, to the greater glory of God and your greater heavenly reward.