THE CODE OF CANON LAW: A TEXT AND COMMENTARY
IV THE OFFICE OF SANCTIFYING IN THE CHURCH
Canon Law Society of America — © 1985
DAYS OF PENANCE
Purpose and Observance of Penitential Days
Canon 1249 — All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law; in order that all may be joined in a common observance of penance, penitential days are prescribed in which the Christian faithful in a special way pray, exercise works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their responsibilities more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence according to the norm of the following canons.
This entire section of the 1917 Code had been reformed by Paul VI on February 17, 1966 with the apostolic constitution Poenitemini (see bibliography following c. 1253). The five canons in this chapter of the Code are a summary of part of this document and must not be understood apart from it, especially the very rich discursive section of the document treating the history of penance and its role in the life of every Christian.
Canon 1250 — All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church.
This canon is taken from Poenitemini, part III,
Days of Abstinence and Fasting
Canon 1251– Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
This canon is taken from Poenitemini, part III, 112. Poenitemini exempted holy days of obligation from Friday abstinence; this canon extends that exemption to all solemnities whether they are of obligation or not. The Code also gives the conference of bishops the power to substitute another penance to be observed on Fridays in place of abstinence from meat.
Neither Poenitemini nor the Code mentions fasting on Holy Saturday whereas The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (SC 109) states:
The paschal fast must be kept sacred. It should be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday, and where possible should be prolonged throughout Holy Saturday so that the faithful may attain the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection with uplifted and responsive minds.
Poenitemini adds the following explanation of abstinence and fast:
The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat. The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing–as far as quantity and quality are concerned–approved local custom (III-1 & 2).
Obligation to Abstain/Fast
Canon 1252– All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.
The completion of the fourteenth year means the day after one’s fourteenth birthday. The beginning of the sixtieth year means the obligation ceases at midnight between the fifty-ninth birthday and the next day.
Poenitemini stated that the law of fast bound those who have completed their twenty-first year; the Code uses the term “adults,” i.e., those who have completed their eighteenth year (c. 97, §1).
The admonition to pastors and parents to educate those of a lesser age in a true sense of penance is taken from Poenitemini and is new to the Code.
Discretion of Conference of Bishops
Canon 1253– It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops in their pastoral statement of November 18, 1966 determined the following:
Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent. They are also obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole.
The entire statement can be found in Canon Law Digest (CLD 6, 679–684).