“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 alms-giving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1438)

Someone emailed me the question, “CAN I RELAX MY LENTEN FAST ON SUNDAYS?” Here’s my response:

Here’s my take. The “forty” day fast during Lent you have in mind (of giving something up during Lent as a penance) is purely voluntary and traditional…it is not mandated by Church law, but is highly recommended in our tradition. 

What is mandated during Lent is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – which means one full meal and two snack meals on those two days. This is called a fast (age requirement: obligatory for those 18-59 years old).

Also during Lent we are required by canon law to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. This is called abstinence (age requirement: anyone 14 or older).

Naturally, you are not required to fast or abstain from meat if you have a medical condition that prevents you from doing so.

The so called forty day fast during Lent is in imitation of our Lord’s forty day fast in the desert. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 540, which reads:

“‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning’ [Heb 4:15]. By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540).

The 40 day fast (or penance) is not mandatory, only voluntary. The only binding rules during Lent are mentioned above. The “Sunday” exception is thus really only an exception to a non-binding idea of justice for those doing the 40 day fast voluntarily, based on two considerations: (1) that Sunday, celebrating the Resurrection, is a day of celebration, not fasting, and (2) the period of time from Ash Wednesday to the official ending of Lent with the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday is actually 44 days long, so you’re still going about 40 days even if you skip Sundays!

What do I do? I do my voluntary fast every day from Ash Wednesday until the dawn of Easter! I’m with you…once I start I stay in the desert with Jesus until Easter Sunday! However, to answer the question posed  –  Yes, you can skip fasting on Sundays during Lent, and this is simply up to your own choice.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday!

God Bless you,

Tom Mulcahy

P.S. I do relax my 40 day fast on my wedding anniversary, and perhaps for other good reasons.

Ref. I reviewed a number of internet articles on this issue, and found the posts by Jimmy Akin to be among the most helpful. Photo by “U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian May,” in the Public Domain, U.S.A., per Wikipedia.

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