Lent – Discipline and History

Issue: How did Lent arise? What is its current discipline, and what is its history?

Discussion: In 1741, a year after his election to the See of Peter, Pope Benedict XIV wrote eloquently on the importance of Lent:

The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.[1]

At the beginning of His public life, Jesus was tempted for 40 days in the desert (Mt. 4:1–11; Mk. 1:12–13; Lk. 4:1–13). “By the solemn 40 days of Lent,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”[2]

The Church has also officially set aside this time as a season of penance:

The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).[3]

During Lent, which since 1969 has run “from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper [on Holy Thursday] exclusive,”[4] the sacred liturgy manifests this twofold focus. Much as Jesus prepared for His public life for 40 days in the desert, catechumens during Lent prepare for the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism at the Easter Vigil, while the baptized prepare for the solemn public renewal of their baptismal promises. At the same time, Lent is a season of individual and social penance for sin. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council explain:

The season of Lent has a twofold character: Primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the Paschal Mystery. . . .

As regards instruction it is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only [the] social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offense against God; the role of the Church in penitential practices is not to be passed over, and the people must be exhorted to pray for sinners.

During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions, and according to the circumstances of the faithful.[5]

In revising the Church’s penitential discipline following the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI emphasized the importance of prayer, fasting, and works of charity during Lent:

Holy Mother Church, although it has always observed in a special way abstinence from meat and fasting, nevertheless wants to indicate in the traditional triad of “prayer-fasting-charity”[6] the fundamental means of complying with the divine precepts of penitence. . . . Where economic well-being is greater, so much more will the witness of asceticism have to be given in order that the sons of the Church may not be involved in the spirit of the “world,” and at the same time the witness of charity will have to be given to the brethren who suffer poverty and hunger beyond any barrier of nation or continent.[7]

To assist the faithful in doing penance during Lent, the Church has decreed that Ash Wednesday (along with Good Friday)[8] is a day of fast and abstinence and that Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence:

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.

The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their 14th year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority [i.e., 18 years of age], until the beginning of their 60th 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.[9]

Bishops and “pastors also for just cause and in accordance with the prescriptions of the Ordinary may grant to individual faithful as well as individual families dispensation or commutation of abstinence and fast into other pious practices.”[10]

American Adaptations

Pope Paul VI granted episcopal conferences wide latitude in implementing and modifying the universal discipline of penance. Nine months after Pope Paul VI reformed the Church’s universal penitential discipline, the American bishops applied the Lenten discipline in the United States and even made it “tougher” than the norm by strongly recommending daily fasting:

In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul’s constitution Paenitemini, we preserve for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.

For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting.[11]

The document goes on to encourage acts of charity and special generosity to the poor, spiritual practices (study of Scripture along with traditional Lenten devotions such as the Stations of the Cross), and mortification during the Lenten season.

Further Guidance for Observing Lent

In its Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments offers several suggestions to make the commemoration of Lent more fruitful:[12]

  • Lent precedes and prepares for Easter. It is a time to hear the Word of God, to convert, to prepare for and remember Baptism, to be reconciled with God and one’s neighbor, and of more frequent recourse to the “arms of Christian penance”: prayer, fasting, and good works (cf. Mt. 6:1–6, 16–18).
  • Those of the faithful who infrequently attend the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist should be aware of the long ecclesial tradition associating the precept of confessing grave sins and receive Holy Communion at least once during the Lenten season, or preferably during Eastertide.
  • During Lent, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays, love for our Crucified Savior should move the Christian community to read the account of the Lord’s Passion.
  • Outside of the liturgical celebration of the Passion, the Gospel narrative can be “dramatized,” giving the various parts of the narrative to different persons; or by interspersing it with hymns or moments of silent reflection. . . . The Via Crucis [Way of the Cross, or Stations of the Cross] is a particularly apt pious exercise for Lent.
  • Modeled on the Via Crucis, the pious exercise of the Via Matris dolorosae [Way of the Sorrowful Mother], or simply the Via Matris, developed and was subsequently approved by the Apostolic See. . . . This pious exercise harmonizes well with certain themes that are proper to the Lenten season.

In 1988, the United States Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy published Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers in response to the Congregation for Divine Worship’s invitation to adapt the 1984 Rituale Romanum (Book of Blessings) to local circumstances. Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers—which the bishops intended to serve as “a book of blessings and prayers for all Catholics in the United States” and hoped would “find a place in every Catholic household”—contains a Blessing of the Season and of a Place of Prayer (for Ash Wednesday), a Blessing of Lenten Disciplines, and a rite for placing palm branches in the home on Palm Sunday.[13]

Highlights of Lenten History [14]

First century—Lent, according to at least four Doctors of the Church (St. Jerome, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Leo the Great, and St. Isidore of Seville), is of apostolic origin; many other scholars, however, believe Lent developed later in the Church’s history.

Late second century—St. Irenaeus writes that there has been a long-standing difference about how to observe the pre-Easter fast: “Some think they ought to fast for one day, others for two days, and others even for several, while others reckon 40 hours both of day and night to their fast.”

Fourth century—Lent is referred to in the fifth canon of the First Council of Nicaea.[15] St. Athanasius decrees a fast of 40 days prior to the stricter fast of Holy Week for the faithful in Alexandria (Egypt) and writes that this 40-day fast is the Church’s universal practice: “While all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughingstock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days.” In Jerusalem, 40 days of fasting take place for eight weeks prior to Easter, with no fasting taking place on Saturdays and Sundays; in Milan, six weeks of fasting take place, again with no fasting on Saturdays and Sundays. In Rome, Lent lasts for six weeks, with fasting taking place during three of the six weeks—perhaps in connection with the scrutinies of catechumens. Lent begins on a Sunday.

Fifth century—The general practice of Lenten fasting throughout the Church consists of one meal in the evening (following Jewish custom), with meat (and originally wine) being forbidden. During Holy Week, or at least on Good Friday, a diet of bread, salt, herbs, and water was common.

Late sixth century—In Rome, Lent lasts for six weeks, with fasting six days per week. St. Gregory the Great calls this 36-day fast the spiritual tithing of the 365-day year. He writes, “We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.”

Early Middle Ages—In the seventh century, four days are added to the beginning of Lent to allow for a 40-day fast. Thus Lent in the West consists of 40 weekdays, all of them fast days, and six Sundays; abstinence from meat, milk, cheese, and eggs is enjoined on Sundays as well as weekdays. The custom of distributing ashes on the first day of Lent likely dates from the eighth century. Dispensations from the discipline of abstinence from milk products and eggs are granted in return for performing some other pious work. It becomes increasingly common to break the fast in midafternoon, rather than in the evening. In the ninth century, a monastery permitted an evening drink (the collation) after the earlier Lenten meal.

High Middle Ages and Renaissance—Eating one meal without meat or milk products remains the general custom, but the meal is now generally taken in midafternoon.[16] In the thirteenth century, it becomes increasingly common to take the meal earlier, just after midday. The custom of the collation gradually spreads and, beginning around 1400, includes food. Dispensations from the Lenten discipline become increasingly common.

Eighteenth century—Pope Benedict XIV (1740–58) grants permission to eat meat on days of fast that are not specifically days of abstinence and decrees that it is never lawful to eat flesh meat and fish in the same meal during the Sundays and weekdays of Lent. In his encyclical on the spiritual advantages of fasting, Pope Clement XIII (1758–69) laments relaxations in the observance of Lent and exhorts bishops, “Your work and zeal should recall the discipline of the Lenten fast, now weakened by many corruptions, to its original observance.”[17]

Nineteenth century—In the United States, all the weekdays of Lent are fasting days, but custom now allows—in addition to the evening collation—”a little tea, coffee, chocolate, or such like beverage together with a morsel of bread or a cracker” in the morning, as well as “water, lemonade, soda, water, ginger ale, wine, beer, and similar drinks” throughout the day. The faithful may “eat meat at their principal meal on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the second and last Saturdays excepted. The use of meat on such days is not restricted to the principal meal for such as are exempt from fasting by reason of ill health, age, or laborious occupations. Eggs, milk, butter, and cheese, formerly prohibited, are now permitted without restriction as far as the day of the week is concerned.” Similar concessions are granted to the faithful in Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia; in Canada, the faithful need only abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent, while milk, cheese, butter, and eggs are permitted throughout the season. By an 1887 indult, “the use of lard or dripping in preparing fish and vegetables at all meals and on all days is allowed” for Catholics in the United States.

Twentieth century—The 1917 Code of Canon Law defines fasting essentially as Pope Paul VI would later define it: “The law of fast prescribes that there be only one meal a day; but it does not forbid that a little bit [of food] be taken in the morning and the evening, observing, nevertheless, the approved custom of places concerning the quantity and the quality of the food.”[18] Under the 1917 Code, the law of abstinence forbids both meat and soups made of meat, but does not forbid eggs and milk products. In addition, the 1917 Code permits eating meat and fish at the same meal (on days of fast that are not days of abstinence) and permits the main meal either at midday or in the evening. Ash Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays of Lent are days of fast and abstinence; the other days of Lent are days of fast only. In 1966, Pope Paul VI establishes the Church’s current penitential discipline and lowers the minimum age of fasting (from 21 to 18).


[1] Constitution Non Ambigimus, quoted in Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., “The History of Lent,” The Liturgical Year, vol. 5 (Powers Lake, ND: Marian House), available online at http://www.ewtn.com/library/liturgy/histlent.txt.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), no. 540, available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc/index.htm. See also no. 1095.

[3] Catechism, no. 1438; citation omitted. For a fuller explanation of what penance in the mind of the Church entails, see the Faith Fact “Daily Penance, Days of Penance,” available online at http://www.cuf.org/faithfacts/details_view.asp?ffID=277.

[4] General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar (1969), available online at http://www.scborromeo.org/litcal.htm. Thus, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is not part of
Lent, but rather the beginning of the Paschal Triduum. Previously, Lent had lasted until Holy Saturday.

[5] Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), nos. 109–10, available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/index.htm.

[6] The Latin text here reads “precationem, ieiunium, opera caritatis“—”prayer, fasting, works of charity.” The Catechism uses the word “almsgiving” (“eleemosynae“) instead of “works of charity” (no. 1434) and exhorts the faithful to “charitable and missionary works” during Lent and on other days of penance (no. 1438).

[7] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution on Fast and Abstinence, Paenitemini (1966), available online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/apost_constitutions/index.htm.

[8] The paschal fast of Good Friday (ideally, from the conclusion of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to the Easter Vigil) has a different character from Lenten fasting. The U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy comments: “This is not a fast of penance but of anticipation. It is fasting like the fasting of a bride or groom before the wedding, a fasting of excitement when we are so filled with anticipation we cannot eat. We fast also from work and from all the usual distractions” (Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers, p. 145).

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council exhort: “Let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind” ( Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 110).

[9] Code of Canon Law (1983), canons 1251–52. The Code is available online athttp://www.vatican.va/archive/cdc/index.htm. Pope Paul VI decreed in Paenitemini that “1. The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat,” and “2. 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.” Approved local custom in the United States allows for the eating of the main meal at the end of the day.

Solemnities that may fall on Fridays during Lent include St. Joseph, the Annunciation of the Lord, the titular saint of one’s parish, and the anniversary of the dedication of one’s parish.

[10] Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini.

[11] National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence (1966), available online at http://ewtn.com/vexperts/showmessage.aspnumber=488525&Pg=Forum9&Pgnu=1&recnu=5. See also Committee on Pastoral Practices, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics” (2000), available online at http://www.usccb.org/dpp/penitential.htm; a document intended to complement the bishops’ 1966 statement.

[12] The following suggestions are taken from Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2001), nos. 124–25, 130, 133 , 136–37, available online at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/index.htm. The Directory discusses the Lenten season, including Palm Sunday, in nos. 124–39.

[13] Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers can be obtained from USCCB Publishing by calling (800) 235-2722 or by visiting http://www.usccbpublishing.org; the quotations are from p. 3.

[14] This section focuses principally on the development of Lent in the West. Unless otherwise noted, the sources for this section of the Faith Fact are Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B., “The History of Lent”; James David O’Neill, “Abstinence,” “Black Fast,” and “Fast,” Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co., 1907–10), available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen; and Herbert Thurston, S.J., “Ash Wednesday” and “Lent,” Catholic Encyclopedia.

[15] Norman Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, available online at http://www.piar.hu/councils/ecum01.htm. Canon 5 reads: “The synods shall be held at the following times: one before Lent, so that, all pettiness being set aside, the gift offered to God may be unblemished; the second after the season of autumn.”

[16] St. Thomas Aquinas, “Fasting,” Summa Theologica, II a.II ae., q. 147, available online at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3147.htm.

[17] Pope Clement XII , Encyclical on the Spiritual Advantages of Fasting, Appetente Sacro (1759), no. 1, available online at http://www.ewtn.com/library/encyc/c13appet.htm.

[18] Canon 1251, available online at http://www.wff.org/FastandAbstinence.html.

Other Available Faith Facts

• The Washing of Feet on Holy Thursday • Eastertide: Determining the Date for Easter • Life in the Fast Lane: Why Catholics Abstain • Daily Penance, Days of Penance • St. Mary Magdalene: A Model Penitent

© 2007 Catholics United for the Faith

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