VATICAN CITY — Ash Wednesday today begins the penitential season of Lent.
Today and Good Friday are the two days of the year when the church requires fasting and abstinence for Catholics. Fridays during Lent are also obligatory days of abstinence from meat.
Sometimes there is some confusion about what this entails so here’s what’s required in a nutshell:
For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59.
When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but combined they should not equal a full meal. Catholics may, of course, eat less, but this is considered the minimum required.
The norms concerning abstinence from meat (on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Fridays during Lent) are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.
Exemptions are also made for those who are physically or mentally ill, diabetic or are pregnant or nursing.
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, FOCUS, has created a number of great resources like this handy illustrated guide created by Jonathan Teixeira:
And a “Lent Sanity” app that delivers daily reflections and reminders about meatless Fridays.
When it comes to the penitential aspect of Lent and Ash Wednesday, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver has a very good post here about the practice of penance. Here’s a snippet:
Most Catholics are familiar with the concept of giving up something for Lent, but what is not well understood is that these sacrifices, these acts of penance, have value because they teach virtue, not because the things sacrificed are bad.
Giving up sweets, coffee, alcohol or listening to music is good because it helps us grow in our ability to turn away from something we desire. Fasting is also important because it helps us focus the eyes of our heart on Jesus, just as he focused the eyes of his heart on the Father in the 40 days he spent fasting. Our heart, made for God, longs for deeper intimacy with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Fasting strengthens our ability to turn toward the good when we are faced with a temptation to sin.
— Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
Be sure to check out the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ list of resources to help people “Give Up, Take Up and Lift Up!” during Lent through fasting, alms-giving and prayer.
This site is meant to help people rediscover confession — something Pope Francis has urged people to do and “not lose even one more day. Go!”
Lent is about real conversion and change, not just fulfilling obligations. So don’t forget to read Pope Francis’ Lenten message for inspiration on the importance of confronting the spiritual and material poverty in the world as well as his audience talk today about using Lent to launch a spiritual makeover and turn our lives around.