Fasting and Abstaining FAQ

Image adapted with appreciation from St. John Chrysostom parish’s page on fasting.

What is the Church’s teaching on fasting & abstinence?
Following the Lord’s teaching, the Church asks the faithful to fast on certain days and to abstain from meat and also from dairy products on certain days.
What is the difference between fasting and abstinence?
Fasting means to go without food or drink for a determined period of time or to limit the amount of food one consumes. Abstinence is to refrain from eating certain foods for a period of time.
Doesn’t the Bible teach that, according to the New Covenant, all food is good?
Yes. Referring to foods considered unclean by the Jews, the Lord told the Chief Apostle St. Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 11:9). In the Old Law, God asked His Chosen People to avoid certain kinds of food altogether. The New Covenant removed these regulations, which were based on dietary precautions. The early Christians were both Jews and Gentiles, and had different dietary customs.
Is fasting not harmful to the body that was given to us by God Himself?
Medical science is showing physical benefits to our fasting and all major dietetics associations defend it as a healthy lifestyle choice, but that is not why we fast. As any human appetite, food can become addictive, or take too much of our human focus. Fasting is an act of the will, whereby we willingly deny ourselves. Self-denial helps us control our appetites.
Which days are fast days in the Ukrainian Catholic Church?
After the Second Vatican Council, our Ukrainian Synod reduced the fast days (those in which we limit how much we consume) to two: the first day of Lent and Good Friday.
How are the faithful to observe a fast day?
On fast days, we totally abstain from meat and dairy products and take only one full meal. Other meals should be of smaller proportions, like snacks.
Which days are days of abstinence in our Church?
In addition to the prescribed fasting days, Ukrainian Catholics are obliged to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year and on the following days: the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29), the Eve of Christmas (December 24), the Eve of Theophany (January 5), and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14).
How can we remember all those days of abstinence?
With only a tiny effort. Parishioners receive a church calendar, on which days of fasting and abstinence are usually marked with a large fish symbol.
What about other traditional days of fasting and abstinence?
In the past, there were many designated days of fasting and abstinence, especially in Lent and Advent. Today, Christians may choose, of their own accord, to observe the traditional fasts. Since 2002, the Basilian Press Calendar has marked traditional non-obligatory days of abstinence with a tiny fish symbol, as opposed to a large fish for obligatory days of abstinence.
Should we limit our self-denial to obligatory fast days?
Although the Church has greatly relaxed the obligation to fast and abstain, Christians should do so of their own free will, when and if they are able. More important than food, we need to control our other desires through other types of self-denial. Abstaining from sin is the goal of physical self-denial.
What other ways do we practice self-denial in Lent?
Besides fasting and abstinence, throughout Great Lent we should refrain from joyous celebrations, dancing and other entertainments. When in doubt, you can approach your parish priest for a dispensation.
Are all the faithful obliged to fast and abstain?
Our Church obliges only those from 14-59 years of age to fast and abstain on designated days. Many people over 60 choose to continue to observe the Church’s regulations, which they and their families consistently practiced throughout their lives. Similarly, young children will eat the food that is served in the household.
What about the sick?
Those who are seriously ill should not fast or abstain from meat if it will harm them. God gave us the gift of our body; we must moderate our appetites with fasting and abstinence, but not harm that body.
Can a priest give dispensation to eat meat on a day of fasting or abstinence?
Not just any priest, but your own parish priest has the jurisdiction to dispense you. Dispensations should not be refused the faithful, except in grave necessity. The point of a dispensation is the self-denial of the will that a Christian must practice by approaching their spiritual father.
What if you must attend an important meal on Friday?
In many Christian countries, even in restaurants, fish is featured on Fridays. When others see us observing the Church regulations, we are setting a good example of how much we value our faith and its practices. In our own homes we must follow Church Law, but when invited to others’ homes, we should never insult them by refusing what they have prepared for us.
What if a feastday falls on a Friday?
We are not obliged to fast or abstain on feastdays which are days of celebration. Check your calendar to be certain.
What about Fridays immediately following a Solemn Feast?
Solemn Feasts of our Lord & our Lady are celebrated for a full eight days (octave). Thus, Fridays following Solemn Feasts are exempt from abstinence. We refer to those days as zahalnytsia or privileged.
Does Advent exist in the Ukrainian Catholic Church?
Yes. Ukrainian Catholics refer to the pre-Christmas fast period as Pylypivka or St. Philip’s Fast, as it always begins on the feast of St. Philip the Apostle, November 14. Unlike the Latin Rite, our Advent is not a liturgical season; we do not see any changes in the Divine Liturgy, Vespers or Matins. Traditionally, we abstained from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays of Pylypivka & Great Lent.
Doesn’t fasting and abstinence belong to a culture of the past?
No. Christ taught us that certain evils “can only be driven out by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21). Self-denial and penance are direct teachings of Christ and can never be changed by the Church. Pope John Paul II often asked Catholics to fast for peace and for other important intentions.
Text adapted with appreciation from St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church’s Fasting & Abstinence FAQ. The purpose of this material is to be descriptive in respective to the issues it addresses. While the material is accurate, it is not definitive. Neither is it legalistic in its intent not does it pretend to be normative. It is shared in response to the queries posed to the author in regards to the church’s ancient traditions. All people should seek out and defer in humility to the guidance of their priest, bishop, and Church.