Why do we do it?
by Dc. Ronnie Hoyt
When I was growing up, my mom would always make us get up early on Sunday mornings for breakfast so there would be plenty of time for us to observe the communion fast prior to receiving the body and blood of Jesus at Mass. On the way out the door, she would even make us open our mouth and show her that we were not chewing gum or sucking on candy before we went to Mass.
Canon law stipulates that we are to fast for one hour before receiving Holy Communion: “One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception only of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion (Canon 919).” It’s important to note that the fast is an hour from Holy Communion, not the beginning of Mass. The canon also says that “the elderly and those who are suffering from some illness, as well as those who care for them, may receive the blessed Eucharist even if within the preceding hour they have consumed something.” The hour fast is from all edible food and drink other than water and medicine, taken by mouth and swallowed. Mom was right, this includes chewing gum as well.
The exact origins of the Eucharistic fast are unknown, but we have evidence dating back to the fourth century. Both in 393 and 397 there were North African Councils stating that the Eucharist was to be consumed before any other food of the day. St. Augustine states basically the same thing, writing in one of his letters, “. . . for from that time [of the earliest church] it pleased the Holy Spirit to appoint, for the honor of such a great sacrament, that the body of the Lord should take the precedence of all other food entering the mouth of a Christian; and it is for this reason that the custom referred to is universally observed” (Letters of St. Augustine, Ep 54.6).
In the 20th century, the Eucharistic fast changed in stages. In 1905, Pope St. Pius X articulated the strict midnight fast from food and drink, including medicine and water. Many of you might remember not being able to eat anything after midnight if you were going to Communion the next morning. It’s a good thing there weren’t evening Masses back then!
Later that was judged to be an obstacle to encouraging more frequent reception of Communion, so in 1957, Pope Pius XII cut the fast time to three hours. In 1964, Pope Paul VI reduced the fast to one hour before receiving Communion, giving us our current church discipline.
That’s the history. But why do we do it? First, we need to note that it is not a penitential fast like those we have during Lent. The reason for the fast is suggested in St. Augustine’s quote cited above: The Eucharist is the first and greatest sustenance for Catholics. It is above and more important than all other means of nourishment.
The Eucharistic fast promotes a deeper reverence and respect for this Sacrament, which is not ordinary food; it is the Panis Angelorum, the “bread of angels.” St. John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord with fasting and penance, because fasting makes room in the heart, mind, body and soul for the Lord. We fast before Holy Communion for the same reason: to prepare the way for the Lord; to make room for Him; to “clean house.” The human body and soul are so closely connected that the soul is prepared for a more fruitful reception of the Blessed Sacrament when the body is denied the comfort and satisfaction of eating or drinking. The one-hour fast increases mental alertness and fosters a deeper hunger in the soul to become united with Our Lord.
So, as you can see, my mom was doing her best to teach us that the Eucharistic fast is an important spiritual component to the most important thing we Catholics do. It is something very simple, and if we are deliberate in observing it, then it will only enrich our participation in the Lord’s Supper.
Yours in Christ,
Dc. Ronnie Hoyt