From what I understand, the Western and Eastern churches fasted identically for a long time: Wednesday and Friday, and the entirety of Lent. Is this untrue?

If not, when and why did the Catholics stop fasting on Wednesday and Friday and throughout Lent as the Orthodox fast?

  • You have some great questions!
    – Byzantine
    Oct 16, 2013 at 0:26
  • 3
    As a start...I would say take a look at the changes Vatican II made. Ill just put it this way...my Grandmother had much stricter fast regulations than I do.
    – user5286
    Oct 16, 2013 at 1:43
  • IIRC by Vatican II fasting on Fridays was no longer required. Catholics were however supposed to abstain from meat (red meat and poultry) -- which in the past could have meant a severely reduced calorie intake. Fridays during Lent are still supposed to be a day of sacrifice but the particulars are left up to the individual.
    – David
    Feb 25, 2015 at 16:48
  • There also used to be a requirement to fast from midnight on Saturday/Sunday until after you had attended Mass on Sunday. I believe some of these regulations were relaxed because such fasting might actually present a health risk e.g. to a diabetic or a woman during pregnancy. That said, the popular perception seems to be that such practices were done away with or deprecated because they were "too old-fashioned".
    – David
    Feb 25, 2015 at 16:54
  • 1
    @David That is correct. Frequent Communion, in the West anyway, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Church, in fact, felt it necessary to make it obligatory to receive Communion at least once a year (a requirement that is still in place)—which for us nowadays sounds strange. But it seems that some people in the Middle Ages received even less often than that, and so had to be encouraged to receive more often. Sep 19, 2016 at 13:15

3 Answers 3


When Did Catholics Cease to Fast as the Orthodox Do?

There are three general phases on how, when and why the Catholic Church changed her way of fasting. it seems all three stages must be seen in the same light in order to understand how this phenomena came about.

  1. The Catholic Church over some extended time in the 20th century slowly relaxed the laws on Eucharistic fasting.
  2. Pope Paul VI overhauled the Church's disciple on fasting in his Apostolic Letter Paenitemini.
  3. The introduction of the Pope Paul's Mass and it's new liturgical calendar.

Before going on, I would like to mention that the fasting in the Catholic Church was never identical to that of the Orthodox fasting. The Orthodox and many Eastern Rite Catholics have historical fasts that simply did not exist in the West. Also there some variations in fasting between the diverse Orthodox Churches.

First Item: The Eucharistic Fast.

On December 20, 1905 Pope St. Pius X, in his Sacra Tridentina of December 20, 1905 changed old traditional age of being allowed to receive Holy Communion and encouraged frequent Communion and not just only once a year as was the norm in his day.

Pope St. Pius X did not change the Eucharistic Fast at the time of his decree on the reception of Holy Communion: Sacra Tridentina. That came with Pope Pius XII.

In the 1950s some parishes started having evening Masses. These evening Masses gradually led to the changes that all parishes currently have with vigil (Sunday) Masses being permitted on Saturday evenings. This was intended to help Catholics with legitimate commitments such as hospital workers to fulfill their “Sunday obligation.” This is one reason I do not attend Saturday evening Masses unless I have an obligation of some sort which takes place at the same time of my Sunday mass.

Now taking into consideration that Pope Pius X allowed the reception of Holy Communion more frequently and lowered the age of receiving the Eucharist and that Pope Pius XII permitted evening Masses, the next step would be to shorten the Eucharistic Fast.

In 1953 Pope Pius XII changed the Eucharistic fast from midnight to 3 hours and in 1957 from 3 hours to 1 hour.

He was the first to permit Masses to be celebrated during the evening hours and also made significant changes in the Eucharistic fast (which for centuries prior to 1953 meant that Catholics were to refrain from food and drink – except water – from midnight until receiving Holy Communion at morning Mass). In 1953 the fast was changed to 3 hours from solid foods and 1 hour from liquids. In 1957 the conditions of the fast were more relaxed in an effort to support changing working conditions of the people and to accommodate the faithful desiring to attend afternoon or evening Masses.

As evening Masses became the rule rather than the exception, the 1 hour fast prior to receiving Holy Communion was officially promulgated by Pope Paul VI as a universal accommodation. This took place at the end of the third council session in 1964. Almost 10 years later a Vatican Instruction published on January 29, 1973 by the Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments called Immensae caritatis affirmed the 1 hour fast and gave additional accommodation to the sick. This eventually took the form of church law (canon 919) in the new 1983 Code of Canon Law. - Liturgical reforms began before Second Vatican Council convened

Second Item: Pope Paul's Apostolic Letter Paenitemini

Pope Paul' s apostolic Letter Paenitemini modernized the Catholic perception on the rules for fasting.

Pope Paul VI changed the tradition Lenten obligation of fasting the entire 40 days of Lent to two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday). Abstinence was reduced to Ash Wednesday and all Fridays only. some diocese permit that the Friday abstinence outside of Lent may be substituted for some Act of Charity or Pious Work.

II. 1. The time of Lent preserves its penitential character. The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of "Grande Quaresima" (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely.

  1. Apart from the faculties referred to in VI and VIII regarding the manner of fulfilling the precept of penitence on such days, abstinence is to be observed on every Friday which does not fall on a day of obligation, while abstinence and fast is to be observed on Ash Wednesday or, according to the various practices of the rites, on the first day of "Grande Quaresima" (Great Lent) and on Good Friday.

III. 1. The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat.

  1. 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.

IV. To the law of abstinence those are bound who have completed their 14th year of age. To the law of fast those of the faithful are bound who have completed their 21st year and up until the beginning of their 60th year.

Third Item: The New Mass and the Liturgical Calendar of 1970

It was and is still tradition in some Catholic communities to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, especially in Advent. But this fast, although traditional was never prescribed as an obligation by Rome.

Catholics and I presume Orthodox chose these two days out of the week to fast because according to tradition Our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday (Spy Wednesday) and Our Lord was crucified on a Friday (Good Friday).

When Pope Paul's New Mass was promulgated (Missale Romanum) on April 3, 1969 it was drastically different in form than the Mass of Pope Pius V and the new Liturgical Calendar of 1970 found some tradition feasts and/or fasts either suppressed or seriously reduced in liturgical rank. The new calendar all but did away with the whole idea of Ember Days. Although not completely suppressed, I do not know of a single diocese that practices the ancient Catholic tradition of Ember Days safe a few religious communities here and there.

As I already mentioned that Catholics never truly fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays in the sense as being obliged by Rome. Many Catholic nevertheless did so. However, The Church, prior to 1970 did fast on Ember Days. A Catholic tradition that was not practiced in the Orthodox Churches. Thus our fasts were never identical, yet were somewhat similar.

Ember days (corruption from Lat. Quatuor Tempora, four times) are the days at the beginning of the seasons ordered by the Church as days of fast and abstinence. They were definitely arranged and prescribed for the entire Church by Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) for the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after 13 December (S. Lucia), after Ash Wednesday, after Whitsunday, and after 14 September (Exaltation of the Cross). The purpose of their introduction, besides the general one intended by all prayer and fasting, was to thank God for the gifts of nature, to teach men to make use of them in moderation, and to assist the needy. The immediate occasion was the practice of the heathens of Rome. The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding; hence their feriae sementivae, feriae messis, and feri vindimiales. The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December; the exact days were not fixed but were announced by the priests. The "Liber Pontificalis" ascribes to Pope Callistus (217-222) a law ordering the fast, but probably it is older. Leo the Great (440-461) considers it an Apostolic institution. When the fourth season was added cannot be ascertained, but Gelasius (492-496) speaks of all four. This pope also permitted the conferring of priesthood and deaconship on the Saturdays of ember week--these were formerly given only at Easter. Before Gelasius the ember days were known only in Rome, but after his time their observance spread. They were brought into England by St. Augustine; into Gaul and Germany by the Carlovingians. Spain adopted them with the Roman Liturgy in the eleventh century. They were introduced by St. Charles Borromeo into Milan. The Eastern Church does not know them. The present Roman Missal [of Pope St. Pius V], in the formulary for the Ember days, retains in part the old practice of lessons from Scripture in addition to the ordinary two: for the Wednesdays three, for the Saturdays six, and seven for the Saturday in December. Some of these lessons contain promises of a bountiful harvest for those that serve God. Ember Days (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Unfortunately, in keeping up to the modern world (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7,1965), the Catholic Church has lost so much our Her former treasures. More could be said, but I believe that this response should be of some use to someone, somewhere.

As a side note: For those Catholics and others who wish to try fasting on the Ember Days, here is a medieval recipe on how to make an Ember Day Tart in order to enhance your experience. Whether we fast on these Ember Days or not, the Ember Day Tart can still be enjoyable as a way to remind ourselves of the traditions that are have almost gone the way of the Dodo bird. Here is a tempora recipe for embertides.

Ember Day Tart

Ember Day Tart


Charles Alsobrook is on the right path in pointing you toward the changes made by Vatican II. The Catholic fasting rules used to be much stricter but have relaxed significantly since Vatican II.

However, even among Orthodox churches the fasting rule varies in regards to the specifics (for example, which kinds of oil are allowed). This probably held true even through the centuries when there was no Catholic/Orthodox split simply because of regional variances in diet and slower communication.

Long discussion on the whole topic here: Orthodox Christianity.net

  • 1
    Welcome to the site, and thanks for the additional insight. As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page and How we are different than other sites? Also, this doesn't really answer the question. It looks like it should be a comment on another post, but you haven't yet earned enough to leave comments. (Again, see the help page.) Hopefully, soon! Nov 20, 2013 at 4:00
  • Yes, I would have just used a comment, but that wasn't an option yet. Thanks for the welcome! Nov 24, 2013 at 20:52

I'm reading the Lenten Triodion, and in this particular version there is a forward by Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, where he states:

Until the fourteenth century, most Western Christians [i.e., Catholics], in common with their brethren in the Orthodox East, abstained during Lent not only from meat but from animal products, such as eggs, milk, butter and cheese. In East and West alike, the Lenten fast involved a severe physical effort. But in Western Christendom over the past five hundred years, the physical requirements of fasting have been steadily reduced, until by now they are little more than symbolic.

Unfortunately he didn't provide a source, although he is a prolific writer on Orthodoxy.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .