The Discipline That Must Not Be Named

The Discipline That Must Not Be Named

It’s an annual tradition in recent years for Catholics—particularly priests—to downplay the idea of fasting or abstaining from certain foods during Lent. 

“What really matters is fasting from sin!”
“Take time in Lent to be kinder to others!”

This is an odd trend, to say the least. After all, for over a millennium Catholics have focused on physical penances during Lent, particularly fasting and abstinence. Now, however, it seems that we want to completely drop this aspect of Lent from the Catholic consciousness.

The oddity of this particularly struck me as I was praying Lauds from the old Divine Office this Lent. Most days the Collect for the day (which matches the Collect from that day’s Mass) explicitly mentions “fasting” or “our fast.” And on the few days it doesn’t mention fasting, it typically references abstaining from or denying ourselves food. The assumption in these prayers of the Church is that everyone is fasting.

I don’t remember these references from my days of praying the modern Liturgy of the Hours, so I decided to do a check. I went through the Collects for both the new and the old calendars for the 2nd and 3rd weeks of Lent. I felt that those two weeks would be representative of the overall theme of the Church’s Lenten prayers before and after the changes made in the late 1960’s. I also skipped the Collects for the Sundays because I understand those might not reference fasting and penance.

What did I find? Fasting is almost never mentioned in our modern Collects. In the twelve days of those Collects, it mentions our “observance” twice, “penance” once, and that we must “chasten our bodies” once. In the other eight Collects, there is no mention of penance, fasting, or anything particularly penitential.

In contrast, the old Collects are rich in references to fasting. Six times the Collect explicitly mentions fasting, four times it references abstaining from or denying ourselves food, and once it notes our “observance.” The only time nothing of this matter is mentioned is on the Thursday of the 3rd Week of Lent, which is a prayer about Sts. Cosmas and Damian and an old holdover from the Rome Lenten stations. 

Here’s a chart of the two sets of Collects (click to magnify):

So 10 out of 12 Collects in the old Calendar speak of our denial of food, while none of the new Collects do (with only four even noting anything particularly penitential). 

Realizing this, is it any wonder that so many Catholics, especially priests, would now downplay the discipline of fasting in Lent? They never hear it even mentioned in the official prayers of the Church! It’s as if this ancient discipline has been erased from our collective consciousness. 

Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi: The law of what is prayed is what is believed is what is lived. If we remove every mention of a disciple from our prayers, then surely the practice of that discipline will soon be removed in practice as well.