DETROIT –– That empty stomach rumble, a reminder of fasting during Lent, is beneficial spiritually and physically. It also is a way to draw attention to the work of the church and to help charitable organizations.
Catholics are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which means eating only one full meal during the course of a day, and to abstain from meat on Fridays.
“The greater portion of fasting is the honoring of the suffering death of our Lord Jesus Christ,” said Franciscan Fr. James E. Goode, president of the National Black Catholic Apostolate for Life. “I tell people when they are in the midst of a crisis in their life, try fasting and prayer, and then pray and fast and have that assurance that God will hear our prayer.”
The 70-year-old priest says he would fast before being given a new assignment. “It was the experience of saying, ‘Not my will, but God’s will, be done.’ God was able to help me to understand where he was leading me. Prayer and fasting brought me peace. It brought me comfort. It brought me that assurance that Jesus is still mine. And that there is nothing in life that he won’t be with me through.”
Members of the New York-based apostolate are encouraging others to join in using Tuesdays during Lent as additional days of fasting and prayer “for the end of abortion and all acts of violence that are destroying our community.”
Pax Christi USA also is recommending fasting beyond the Friday requirement during Lent. John Zokovitch, director of national field operations for the organization that is moving its headquarters from Erie, Pa., to Washington, says it “goes along with Catholic understanding of fasting being about personal atonement, but also about certain self-purification, a certain amount of resituating ourselves to the important things in our life.
“Within the context of Pax Christi, it’s with the Gospel call to be peacemakers and justice seekers,” said the 42-year-old member of Holy Faith Catholic Church in Gainesville, Fla. While there is no specific priority cited for this year’s Lent fast, Zokovitch says in the past year the hallmarks of Pax Christi – prayer, study and action – have emphasized the war in Afghanistan, immigration and nuclear disarmament.
Fasting and abstinence should go back to being a communal practice for families and parishes who skip a meal, spend the time in prayer and donate the money to charity, says Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, 75, director of the diaconate program for the Diocese of Portland, Maine. “When I was growing up, you could look around a restaurant and know who was a Catholic by who was not eating meat.”
He also remembers the total fast of food and water from midnight until receiving Communion, a fast with “the actual feeling of hunger so that you create a space that only God can fill.” He equates it with the “Christian rhythm of life of fasting and feasting.”
Msgr. Murphy points to Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution on penance in 1966, which recommended all Catholics voluntarily fast and abstain throughout the year. Outside Lent, those practices could be substituted with prayer and works of charity. Msgr. Murphy says the changes were prompted because prior to 1966, “it was so laden with the language of sin that people were approaching it without the spiritual basis for this practice.”
Fasting fell out of favor. In February 1980, a few months after visiting the United States, Pope John Paul II had dinner at the Pontifical North American College in Rome where Msgr. Murphy was the rector. The pope asked the rector about the lack of fasting in the United States.
“I didn’t have an answer for him then,” recalled Msgr. Murphy, who said his answer became his book “The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice,” published by Ave Maria Press in 2010.
He also promotes the partial fast observed during Lent as a way to “heal our bodies, minds and spirits of bad habits. They say it takes 40 days for the body to reset itself biologically and that’s what Lent is.”
America’s appetite could stand to benefit physically by fasting, said Dr. Raymond J. Casciari, chief medical officer at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. Fasting “tends to make you more alert and tends to make you less depressed.”
Most people begin to metabolize fat after 12 hours of fasting. “We need to access that fat, otherwise it just continues to build. That’s a huge problem in this country right now,” said the physician, a member of St. Norbert Parish in Orange. “The more fat we build the more likely that we will get all sorts of diseases related to fat, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, strokes.”
A weekly fasting day, staying hydrated with water, would be a good thing for most people, he said. Just as important is breaking that fast with a small meal, rather than trying to make up for the meals missed.