A Return to Penance and Abstinence

Fifty years ago, in anticipation of the First Sunday of Advent of 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. Most American Catholics today are not familiar with the Statement itself, but we are familiar with its general effect: the loosening of norms for Catholics regarding fasting and abstinence.

With fifty years of hindsight — and since we are within the penitential season of Advent and fast approaching the Advent Embertide–it is worthwhile to revisit the Bishops’ Statement. Because the Bishops summarize their intention at the end of their Statement, I’ll begin there:

In summary, let it not be said that by this action, implementing the spirit of renewal coming out of the Council, we have abolished Friday, repudiated the holy traditions of our fathers, or diminished the insistence of the Church on the fact of sin and the need for penance. Rather, let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons of God, and servants of God’s people.

I don’t wish to be too hard on the Bishops or to suggest that they had ill motives here, but the following fifty years have shown that the result of the Statement is quite close to the opposite of what the Bishops say they intended. Fridays, which are supposed to be penitential, have all but been abolished. Few Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays or embrace any voluntary penance. Few Catholics fast–either throughout Lent or at any other time of the year. And far from “heralding a new birth of loving faith and more profound penitential conversion,” the Bishops’ Statement has been received in such a way as to prove that Catholics no longer believe they are guilty of sin or obliged to do penance or mortification in reparation thereof.

But I said I don’t wish to be too hard on the Bishops, and I mean that. For whether their Statement was poorly considered or just poorly received, the Statement itself includes a worthwhile call to voluntarily and freely embrace penance. Moreover, I suspect that many of us who consider ourselves serious or traditional Catholics have ourselves been affected (or infected?) by the laxity of our age, and are falling short of what the Bishops recommended for the faithful in 1966. So let’s review the Bishops’ Statement more fully, and let’s do so with generous hearts open to embracing more rigorous penitential practices out of love for Christ.

1966 Statement on Penance and Abstinence

The Bishops began by calling to mind man’s guilt:

  1. Thus Sacred Scriptures declare our guilt to be universal; hence the universal obligation to that repentance which Peter, in his sermon on Pentecost, declared necessary for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38). Hence, too, the Church’s constant recognition that all the faithful are required by divine law to do penance. As from the fact of sin we Christians can claim no exception, so from the obligation to penance we can seek no exemption.

  2. Forms and seasons of penance vary from time to time and from people to people. But the need for conversion and salvation is unchanging, as is the necessity that, confessing our sinfulness, we perform, personally and in community, acts of penance in pledge of our inward penitence and conversion.

The Bishops then recalled that the practice of observing seasons and days of penance is one that Christian people “have from the beginning observed,” both communally, and through personal acts of self-denial.

The rest of the Bishops’ statement addresses the four main periods in which Christians have done penance: Advent, Lent, Vigils and Ember Days, and Fridays. For each of these periods we’ll see the Bishops loosen the obligations of penance and instead encourage voluntary penance.


The Bishops recognized that, even in 1966, “[s]omething of a holiday mood of Christmas appears now to be anticipated in the days of the Advent.” The Bishops reminded the faithful that Advent should remain a season of penitential preparation for Christmas and encouraged the faithful to “rely on the liturgical renewal and the new emphasis on the liturgy” as a means of resisting the modern trend.

While this prescription would seem to have failed, we should nevertheless heed the Bishops’ call to penance during the Advent season so that we can prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Some options include fasting on Wednesdays or Fridays (or both), fasting during the Advent Embertide, more frequent attendance at daily Mass, and a renewed emphasis on daily prayer–both mental prayer and vocal prayer (I suggest the St. Andrew’s Novena as a fine tradition of vocal prayer for Advent).


“[W]e hope that the observance of Lent as the principal season of penance in the Christian year will be intensified.” The Bishops then asked “urgently and prayerfully” that the faithful “make of the entire Lenten Season a period of special penitential observance.” After making these general exhortations to penance, the Bishops then relaxed the obligation to fast–an obligation that had previously bound all adult Catholics to fast throughout all 40 days of Lent–and maintained only two obligatory days of fasting, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Bishops also maintained abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays throughout Lent.

We could be forgiven for thinking that the Bishops’ Statement concluded its section on Lent here, for the last 50 years have shown that Catholics have taken the Bishops at their word, reasoning: “If there is no obligation to fast, there is no need to fast; hence, I will not fast.” So it was surprising to me that the Bishops continued their section on Lent with some strong recommendations.

“14. For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting.” (Emphasis added.) The Bishops also recommended generosity to the poor, mortification, scriptural studies, and traditional Lenten devotions such as sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary.

Our experience shows that nearly all Catholics have ignored these recommendations. (I suspect that few serious or traditional Catholics both fast and attend daily Mass throughout Lent, let alone perform the other recommended devotions.) This experience, of course, suggests that the policy of loosening penitential obligations was a failure and should be revisited. In the meantime, we as lay Catholics can ourselves implement this call to penance in our own families and parishes by voluntarily embracing a renewed adherence to the Lenten fasts and devotions.

Vigils and Ember Days

“17. Vigils and Ember Days, as most now know, no longer oblige to fast and abstinence.” (Emphasis added.)

Before moving on to the Bishops’ recommendations for Vigils and Ember Days we should first pause because, fifty years later, most Catholics do not know what a Vigil or Ember Day is. (Of course, this fact itself confirms once again that the Bishops’ call to voluntary penance in this area was unsuccessful and should be revisited.)

A Vigil is the day before a feast. Traditionally, certain Vigils, such as the Vigil of Pentecost and the Vigil of Christmas, were days of fast and abstinence.

Ember Days occur seasonally and are days of fasting and partial abstinence (no meat except at the principal meal). Each of the four Embertides are “fasts before a feast” and themselves include three days of fasting and partial abstinence–Ember Wednesday, Ember Friday (fasting and full abstinence), and Ember Saturday. More on Ember Days is available at Fisheaters here.

Returning to the Bishops’ Statement, they continued by clarifying that fasting is no longer obligatory, but also suggesting “that the devout will find greater Christian joy in the feasts of the Liturgical calendar if they freely bind themselves, for their own motives and in their own spirit of piety, to prepare for each Church festival by a day of particular self-denial, penitential prayer and fasting.”

We should heed this recommendation and again embrace fasting and abstinence during the four Embertides. And now’s the time to start since the Advent Embertide is upon us! (The Advent Embertide begins the Wednesday after the Feast of St. Lucy, which is December 13.)


“18. Gratefully remembering [that Christ died for our salvation on Friday], Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.”

The Bishops then suggested that, due to changing circumstances, for some, abstaining from meat is no longer an effective means of practicing penance. They continued:

  1. Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.

  2. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.

  3. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.

  4. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

  5. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.  [emphasis added]

Again, we see the Bishops removing the obligation to do penance and instead encouraging us to freely embrace penance. And again, with fifty years of hindsight, we know that this changed policy has not been fruitful. Few embrace Friday penance or abstinence; and even for those of us who do, I suggest that we are far more likely to celebrate Friday with the spirit of the world (e.g., TGIF) than to commemorate Christ’s sacrificial death through penance, mortification, and devotion. So let us heed the Bishops’ call and return to Friday penance–to make every Friday “something of what Lent is in the entire year,” i.e., a day of fasting, abstinence, and other mortifications and devotions.


By fasting and mortifying ourselves through other penances, we do penance out of justice for the guilt of our sins. We should do so out of love for Jesus Christ, in imitation of His own fasts and mortifications, in adherence to His counsel which encouraged self-denial and fasting, and in union with his sacrificial Passion and death. Countless saints have embraced this ascetical path and their witness confirms for us that His yoke is easy and His burden light. The examples of these saints also show that the heights of prayer cannot be reached if we are in love with the world and its pleasures. Rather, we need fasting and mortifications to help break the world’s hold on us, to aid our prayer life, and to increase our love of God and neighbor.

So this liturgical year, let us embrace penance–and particularly during Advent, Lent, Vigils and Embertides, and Fridays

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