The journey of Lent

There is much more to Lent than just fasting and abstinence, writes Cathal Barry

The poverty of Jesus “frees us and enriches us”, Pope Francis wrote this in his recent Lenten message. His letter concentrates on poverty, particularly on Christ’s poverty. The Pope, in fact, begins by explaining that Jesus “became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich”.

In his message, the Holy Father hopes “this Lenten season find[s] the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ”.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis suggests we can do this “to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty”. “Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty,” he says.

Lent is a special time of prayer, penance, sacrifice and good works in preparation of the celebration of Easter.

The number 40 has always had a special spiritual significance when preparing for Easter. We know that on Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Similarly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before he began his public ministry (Mt 4:2).


Once the 40 days of Lent had been established by the early Church, the next development concerned how much fasting was to be done.

The Church teaches that refraining from food can help us to bring our bodies under the control of our souls, but it is also a way of doing penance for past excesses. That is why the Church strongly recommends that Catholics fast during Lent.

The Church used to prescribe very rigorous rules for the Lenten fast (including abstinence from all meat and eating only one meal per day). The current rules, however, are much more lax.

The rules for fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church are set forth in the Code of Canon Law.

Canon 1249: The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.


In stating that the faithful be “united among themselves” in penance, this canon reflects the teaching of Vatican II that the Church is not merely a conglomerate of individuals but rather a unified body, in Christ. The obligation to do penance is not therefore a merely individualistic one, in the Church it implies a communitarian or social requirement which itself expresses the unity and the community of Christ’s Church.

Canon 1250:The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

This canon states the simple directive that the days and times of penance for the Church are

 Each Friday of the entire year, commemorating the crucifixion and death of Christ on the first Good Friday;

 The season of Lent – from Ash Wednesday to midday on Holy Saturday – itself the immediate preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Canon 1251:Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Canon 1252:The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

These two canons concentrate on the two forms of penance – fasting and abstinence – which are specifically a matter of legal obligation in the Church. While in no way taking from the overall moral obligation “to do penance”, they lay down the following regulation in respect of fasting and abstinence:

Abstinence from meat – or from some other food as determined by the local Bishops Conference is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday;

 Abstinence, as defined above, and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday, initiating the penitential season of Lent, and on Good Friday, commemorating the passion and death of Christ;

The law of abstinence binds those who have a sufficient use of reason and who have completed their 14th year (midnight on their 14th birthday), and it endures throughout their lives;

The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority (Midnight on their 18th birthday and it endures until the beginning of their 60th year (Midnight on their 59th birthday).

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.

In the course of the revision of the Code of Canon Law the question of fast and abstinence was considered at some length; in particular, it was asked whether abstinence should be confined to abstaining only from meat, as had been the traditional practice in the Church.


It was decided that, since abstinence from meat was significant in cultures and traditions of only certain peoples, it would not be appropriate to require it of others for whom abstinence from some other form of food would be a more meaningful penance.

Arising from that discussion came the proposal that while stating a general law for the Church, provision should be made for the adjustment of both abstinence and fast more in keeping with the local conditions and circumstances.

Hence the prescription of the above canon, the terms of which permit Bishop’s Conferences to determine more particular ways in which fast and abstinence are to be observed, and to substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety. 


While fasting and abstinence is a vitally important part of Lent for Catholics, to think of the season only as a time of penance is to do it an injustice. While the traditional practice of ‘giving something up’ for Lent is praiseworthy, there is much more to this season than just additional practices of piety or acts of penance. In Lent the Church calls its members to metanoia.

Metanoia connotes a change of mind and heart, altering one’s mind-set toward whole new ways of thinking and acting. This involves taking a look at where we are and trying to see where we ought to be. It involves testing our values and discerning how they stack up against the values that Jesus offers his followers.

Like most Christian holidays, Lent offers us an opportunity to retreat, reflect and of course, renew.