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Forgotten Customs of Lent

The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should men grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe
(Words of Pope Benedict XIV who reigned from 1740 – 1758).

The sacred season of Lent, called the Great Fast by our eastern Catholic brethren, was instituted by the Apostles themselves as Dom Gueranger writes:

The forty days’ fast, which we call Lent, is the Church’s preparation for Easter, and was instituted at the very commencement of Christianity. Our blessed Lord Himself sanctioned it by fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert; and though He would not impose it on the world by an express commandment (which, in that case, could not have been open to the power of dispensation), yet He showed plainly enough, by His own example, that fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the old Law, was to be also practiced by the children of the new…The apostles, therefore, legislated for our weakness, by instituting, at the very commencement of the Christian Church, that the solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal fast; and it was only natural that they should have made this period of penance to consist of forty days, seeing that our divine Master had consecrated that number by His own fast.

Lent, founded upon the three pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is the primary season of penance in the year and must be observed with the greatest strictness for the love of God who instituted this season for our healing. Due to the primordial importance of Lent, over time, the history and customs of observed prayers, fasting and abstinence, and almsgiving have formed a definitive part of annual Catholic life. This Lent, adopt some of these – especially the fasting principles – which our forefathers in the Faith gladly observed.

Lenten Fasting

Lenten fasting is a cornerstone of Lent and rediscovering true Catholic fasting for Lent is necessary to resurrect Christendom. The Lenten fast began under the Apostles themselves and was practiced in various forms. St. Augustine in the fourth century remarked, “Our fast at any other time is voluntary; but during Lent, we sin if we do not fast.” At the time of St. Gregory the Great at the beginning of the 7th century, the fast was universally established to begin on what we know as Ash Wednesday. While the name “Ash Wednesday” was not given to the day until Pope Urban II in 1099, the day was known as the “Beginning of the Fast.”

Regarding Holy Saturday’s fast in particular, Canon 89 of the Council in Trullo in 692 AD provides an account of the piety and devotion of the faithful of that time: “The faithful, spending the days of the Salutatory Passion in fasting, praying and compunction of heart, ought to fast until the midnight of the Great Sabbath: since the divine Evangelists, Matthew and Luke, have shown us how late at night it was [that the resurrection took place].” That tradition of fasting on Holy Saturday until midnight would last for centuries.

Historical records further indicate that Lent was not a merely regional practice observed only in Rome. It was part of the universality of the Church. Lenten fasting began in England, for instance, sometime during the reign of Earconberht, the king of Kent, who was converted by the missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury in England. During the Middle Ages, fasting in England, and many other then-Catholic nations, was required both by Church law and the civil law. Catholic missionaries brought fasting, which is an integral part of the Faith, to every land they visited.

The rules on fasting remained largely the same for hundreds of years. Food was to be taken once a day after sunset. By midnight, the fast resumed and was terminated only after the sun had once again set on the horizon. But relaxations were to soon begin.

By the eighth century, the time for the daily meal was moved to the time that the monks would pray the Office of None in the Divine Office. This office takes place around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. As a consequence of moving the meal up in the day, the practice of a collation was introduced. The well-researched Father Francis Xavier Weiser summarizes this major change with fasting:

It was not until the ninth century, however, that less rigid laws of fasting were introduced. It came about in 817 when the monks of the Benedictine order, who did much labor in the fields and on the farms, were allowed to take a little drink with a morsel of bread in the evening… Eventually the Church extended the new laws to the laity as well, and by the end of the medieval times they had become universal practice; everybody ate a little evening meal in addition to the main meal at noon.

In 604, in a letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury, Pope St. Gregory the Great announced the form that abstinence would take on fast days. This form would last for almost a thousand years: “We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh: milk, cheese, and eggs.” When fasting was observed, abstinence was likewise always observed.

Through the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, we can learn how Lent was practiced in his own time and attempt to willingly observe such practices in our own lives. The Lenten fast as mentioned by St. Thomas Aquinas constituted of the following:

  • Monday through Saturday were days of fasting. The meal was taken at mid-day and a collation was allowed at night, except on days of the black fast
  • All meat or animal products were prohibited throughout Lent.
  • Abstinence from these foods remained even on Sundays of Lent, though fasting was not practiced on Sundays.[1]
  • No food was to be eaten at all on either Ash Wednesday or Good Friday
  • Holy Week was a more intense fast that consisted only of bread, salt, water, and herbs.

The Lenten fast included fasting from all lacticinia (Latin for milk products) which included butter, cheese, eggs, and animal products.[2] From this tradition, Easter Eggs were introduced, and therefore the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is when pancakes are traditionally eaten to use leftover lacticinia. And similarly, Fat Tuesday is known as Carnival, coming from the Latin words carne levare – literally the farewell to meat. These were mentioned in the “Forgotten Customs of Septuagesima” article in more detail.

By the fourteenth century, the meal had begun to move up steadily until it began to take place even at 12 o’clock. The change became so common it became part of the Church’s discipline. In one interesting but often unknown fact, because the monks would pray the liturgical hour of None before they would eat their meal, the custom of calling midday by the name “noon” entered into our vocabulary as a result of the fast. With the meal moved up, the evening collation remained.

Some of the most significant changes to fasting would occur under the reign of Pope Benedict XIV who reigned from 1740 – 1758. On May 31, 1741, Pope Benedict XIV issued Non Ambiginius which granted permission to eat meat on fasting days while explicitly forbidding the consumption of both fish and flesh meat at the same meal on all fasting days during the year in addition to the Sundays during Lent. Beforehand, the forty days of Lent were held as days of complete abstinence from meat. The concept of partial abstinence was born even though the term would not appear until the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Sadly, Lent would only continue to wane in the centuries to come.

Father Anthony Ruff relates in his article “Fasting and Abstinence: The Story” of the changes made by Pope Leo XIII in the document entitled Indultum quadragesimale as a further modification to the changes introduced by Pope Benedict XIV.

In 1886 Leo XIII allowed meat, eggs, and milk products on Sundays of Lent and at the main meal on every weekday [of Lent] except Wednesday and Friday in the [United States]. Holy Saturday was not included in the dispensation. A small piece of bread was permitted in the morning with coffee, tea, chocolate, or a similar beverage.

While the evening collation had been widespread since the 14th century, the practice of an additional morning collation was introduced only in the 19th century as part of the gradual relaxation of discipline.

Consequently, the Baltimore Manual published by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 states:

Only one full meal is allowed, to be taken about noon or later. Besides this full meal, a collation of eight ounces is allowed. If the full meal is taken about the middle of the day, the collation will naturally be taken in the evening; if the full meal is taken late in the day, the collation may be taken at noon. Besides the full meal and collation, the general custom has made it lawful to take up to two ounces of bread (without butter) and a cup of some warm liquid – as coffee or tea – in the morning. This is important to observe, for by means of this many persons are enabled – and therefore obliged – the keep the fast who could not otherwise do so.

The Catechism of Father Patrick Powers published in Ireland in 1905 mentions that abstinence includes flesh meat and “anything produced from animals, as milk, butter, cheese, eggs.” However, Father Patrick notes, “In some countries, however, milk is allowed at collation.” The United States was one of those nations whereas Ireland and others were not granted such dispensations. The use of eggs and milk during Lent was to drastically change with the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

For more information on how the Lenten fast quickly deteriorated even more in the 1900s, see the article Fasting in the 1900s Pre-Vatican II. With this history in mind we can better understand the importance of the Lenten fast to our ancestors and rediscover in our own lives this Lent the keeping of Lent as forty days of fasting and forty-six days of abstinence, even from dairy products, in order to continue these immemorial practices. It is not too late to commit to some form of bodily penance for the remainder of Lent.

Lenten Prayers

Lent also has a focus on prayer and this thankfully is still seen by the many Catholics who gladly continue to pray the Stations of the Cross each Friday of Lent, which has indulgences attached to them for those who meet the conditions. In addition to this practice, praying the indulged prayer to the Cross each Friday in Lent should be something more Catholics rediscover.

Additionally, each day of Lent has a special stational church in Rome. These churches often have a connection to the Traditional Mass readings and prayers of that day – especially for catechumens – and reading about the daily stational churches is a worthwhile practice this Lent.

Similarly, we would be remiss if we did not try to attend Holy Mass more often during this sacred season and, even for those days we cannot attend, read the prayers of the Missal since everyday of Lent has a proper Mass as Dom Gueranger points out:

Each feria of Lent has a proper Mass; whereas, in Advent, the Mass of the preceding Sunday is repeated during the week. This richness of the Lenten liturgy is a powerful means for our entering into the Church’s spirit, since she hereby brings before us, under so many forms, the sentiments suited to this holy time… All this will provide us with most solid instruction; and as the selections from the Bible, which are each day brought before us, are not only some of the finest of the sacred volume, but are, moreover, singularly appropriate to Lent, their attentive perusal will be productive of a twofold advantage.

Lenten Almsgiving

In addition to prayer and fasting, almsgiving is one of the primary means of penance we perform during Lent. There is a custom in some churches in Europe of having alms boxes specifically for the poor souls. This is a custom that is not commonly known nowadays but one that we might encourage parishes in our own area to adopt.

Almsgiving refers to giving to the poor. By giving to the poor, we make reparation for sins as we see in the poor the person of Christ Himself. Though, while not strictly almsgiving, the giving of our time to visit the sick, the elderly, or those in prison also makes reparation for sin. Our Lord at the End of Times will judge everyone, and He will judge us against the works of mercy. Everyone will be judged against them.

May the restoration in our own lives this Lent of increased prayer, fasting, and almsgiving be for the glory of God and the glory of Christendom.


Photo by Allison Girone, used with permission. 

[1] Laetare Sunday would eventually become the one day of a reprieve during the Lenten observance when abstinence was relaxed.

[2] Regarding this point there are important exceptions to note as the Church has always exercised common sense. “Abstinence from lacticinia which included milk, butter, cheese, and eggs, was never strictly enforced in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia because of the lack of oil and other substitute foods in those countries. The Church using common sense granted many dispensations in this matter in all countries of Europe. People who did eat the milk foods would often, when they could afford it, give alms for the building of churches or other pious endeavors.” Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts & Customs, 171-172.

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