One day, just before the time for an evening Mass, my fellow Catholic bought bread to eat. Knowing that we were in the church for Mass, I reminded him of the one hour fast before Holy Communion. Given that just the Sunday before, the parish priest had reminded parishioners through an announcement to observe the fast, his response surprised me. The young man responded that worshipping God is not about rules. In short, he showed a total disregard for the discipline of the one hour fast. He was a Catholic Charismatic Renewal member. I was baffled by his response since I believed that he was supposed to know better. He ended up eating and having it in mind to go for Holy Communion. In the course of what appeared to be an argument between us, I discovered that he just did not understand why the church had the one-hour fast in place and he did not care to know. When Catholics behave this way towards the church, what will they expect non-Catholics to say or do? I have therefore decided to use this post to let Catholics and anyone who is concerned know the importance of the one-hour fast before Holy Communion.
Until 1964, Catholics used to fast from midnight on when they are to receive Communion. Actually, from apostolic times Christians have tried, when possible, to make Christ’s Body their first food of the day. Such a fast was not considered an overwhelming burden, it was a means to draw Christians closer to Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament.
However, the rules were changed on November 21, 1964, by Pope Paul VI. The current rules are found in Canon 919 of the Code of Canon Law:
- A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before Holy Communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.
- A priest who celebrates the Most Holy Eucharist two or three times on the same day can take something before the second or third celebration even if there is less than one hour between them.
- The elderly, the infirm, and those who care for them can receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have eaten something within the preceding hour.
The “elderly” in 3 is defined as 60 years of age or older.
Let me quickly say that the Eucharistic fast is a discipline, not a doctrine of the church. As a discipline, it can be modified or abolished. Indeed, just in the last century, the Eucharistic fast was reduced from several hours to just one. Nonetheless, it is meant to help Catholics prepare for the awesome privilege of receiving Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity.
Consider John the Baptist who prepared the way of the Lord with fasting and penance because fasting makes room in the heart, mind, body, and soul for the Lord. Our reason for fasting before Holy Communion is not different: to prepare the way for the Lord; to make room for him. When we fast before Holy Communion, we are “cleaning the house.” On a deeper level, the Eucharistic fast promotes a profound reverence and respect for this Most Holy Sacrament. This is no ordinary food; it is the panis angelorum, the “bread of angels.”
The human body and soul are meant for each other and that is why they have a very close connection. They are so united that the activity of the soul has an effect on the body and the action of the body has an effect on the soul. Consequently, when the body is denied the comfort and satisfaction of eating or drinking, the soul is prepared for a more fruitful reception of the Blessed Sacrament. The one-hour fast can increase mental alertness and my experience with it fosters a deeper hunger in my soul to become united with Our Lord. It creates a physical hunger and thirst for the Lord, which in turn augments the spiritual hunger and thirst we ought to have.
In the Old Testament, fasting prepared individuals to receive the action of God and to be placed in his presence. Moses (Ex 34: 28), for instance fasted 40 days atop Mount Sinai as he received the Ten Commandments. Elijah (I Kgs 19:8) fasted 40 days as he walked to Mount Horeb to encounter God. In the same way, Jesus himself fasted 40 days in preparation for his public ministry (Mt 4:1ff) and encouraged fasting (Mt 6:16-18).
The one-hour fast enhances the spiritual disposition we need to receive Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It increases our “appetite” for the sharing of the Paschal banquet. Jesus said, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Mt 5:6). Holy Communion satisfies our hunger and thirst and the fasting that precedes it is an exercise of humility, hope, and love – essential virtues in preparing for reception.
If you have never been practicing the one-hour fast, I hope you now have the reason to do so.