Today begins the Liturgical Season of Lent, where we join our own suffering to Christ’s, imitating His forty day fast in the desert. This is the time to purge sin and weakness from the will, to reach Heavenward from the ashes around us. Being a long and noble practice, all should attempt (even non-Catholics) to incorporate the precepts into their own pre-Easter life.
The venerable Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 35, explains:
Q. 1337. What do you mean by fast-days?
A. By fast-days I mean days on which we are allowed but one full meal.
Q. 1338. Is it permitted on fast days to take any food besides the one full meal?
A. It is permitted on fast days, besides the one full meal, to take two other meatless meals, to maintain strength, according to each one’s needs. But together these two meatless meals should not equal another full meal.
Q. 1339. Who are obliged to fast?
A. All persons over 21 and under 59 years of age, and whose health and occupation will permit them to fast.
Q. 1340. Does the Church excuse any classes of persons from the obligation of fasting?
A. The Church does excuse certain classes of persons from the obligation of fasting on account of their age, the condition of their health, the nature of their work, or the circumstances in which they live. These things are explained in the Regulations for Lent, read publicly in the Churches each year.
Q. 1341. What should one do who doubts whether or not he is obliged to fast?
A. In doubt concerning fast, a parish priest or confessor should be consulted.
Q. 1342. When do fast days chiefly occur in the year?
A. Fast days chiefly occur in the year during Lent and Advent, on the Ember days and on the vigils or eves of some great feasts. A vigil falling on a Sunday is not observed.
Q. 1343. What do you mean by Lent, Advent, Ember days and the vigils of great feasts?
A. Lent is the seven weeks of penance preceding Easter. Advent is the four weeks of preparation preceding Christmas. Ember days are three days set apart in each of the four seasons of the year as special days of prayer and thanksgiving. Vigils are the days immediately preceding great feasts and spent in spiritual preparation for them.
Q. 1344. What do you mean by days of abstinence?
A. By days of abstinence I mean days on which no meat at all may be taken (complete abstinence) or on which meat may be taken only once a day (partial abstinence). This is explained in the regulations for Lent. All the Fridays of the year are days of abstinence except when a Holyday of obligation falls on a Friday outside of Lent.
Q. 1345. Are children and persons unable to fast bound to abstain on days of abstinence?
A. Children, from the age of seven years, and persons who are unable to fast are bound to abstain on days of abstinence, unless they are excused for sufficient reason.
Q. 1346. Why does the Church command us to fast and abstain?
A. The Church commands us to fast and abstain, in order that we may mortify our passions and satisfy for our sins.
Q. 1347. What is meant by our passions and what by mortifying them?
A. By our passions are meant our sinful desires and inclinations. Mortifying them means restraining them and overcoming them so that they have less power to lead us into sin.
Q. 1348. Why does the Church command us to abstain from flesh-meat on Fridays?
A. The Church commands us to abstain from flesh-meat on Fridays in honor of the day on which our Savior died.