The Archbishop Speaks: Fast & Abstinence

Archbishop Lefebvre giving an explanation in his Ecône seminary office

Let us reflect on both the letter and spirit of the 40 days, with this letter written in 1982 by the Archbishop.

Just more than a decade after founding the Society, Archbishop Lefebvre sent this letter in order to bring context to the Lenten season. As it was true when he wrote this in 1982, it is even more in 2017: often, faithful ask what they should do, or have to do during the Lenten times.

The Catholic Church does indeed have a rich history in regards to the proper norms practiced during Lent, as Fr Christopher Danel discusses in a 2016 edition of The Angelus. But beyond the prescribed—written—penitential rules, there should be a spirit of penance, and beyond this, of prayer. The two go together, as the Archbishop explains below.

A Lenten Message on Fast and Abstinence

My dear brethren:

According to an ancient and salutary tradition in the Church, on the occasion of the beginning of Lent, I address these words to you in order to encourage you to enter into this penitential season wholeheartedly, with the dispositions willed by the Church and to accomplish the purpose for which the Church prescribes it.

If I look in books dating from the early part of this century, I find that they indicate three purposes for which the Church has prescribed this penitential time:

  • first, in order to curb the concupiscence of the flesh;
  • then, to facilitate the elevation of our souls toward divine realities;
  • finally, to satisfy for our sins.

Our Lord gave us the example during His life, here on earth: pray and do penance. However, Our Lord, not having concupiscence nor sin did penance and made satisfaction for our sins, thus showing us that our penance may be beneficial not only for ourselves but also for others.

Pray and do penance. Do penance in order to pray better, in order to draw closer to Almighty God. This is what all the saints have done, this is that of which all the messages of the Blessed Virgin remind us.

Would we dare to say that this necessity is less important in our day and age than in former times? On the contrary, we can and we must affirm that today, more than ever before, prayer and penance are necessary because everything possible has been done to diminish and despise these two fundamental elements of Christian life.

Never before has the world sought to satisfy, without any limit, the disordered instincts of the flesh—even to the point of the murder of millions of innocent, unborn children. One would come to believe that society has no other reason for existence except to give the greatest material standard of living to all men in order that they avoid any privation of material goods.

Thus we see that such a society would be opposed to that which the Church prescribes. In these times, when even Churchmen align themselves with the spirit of the world, we witness the disappearance of prayer and penance—particularly in their character of reparation for sins and of obtaining pardon for faults. Few there are today who love to recite Psalm 50, the Miserere, and who say with the psalmist, "Peccatum meum contra me est semper—my sin is always before me." How can a Christian remove the thought of sin if the image of the crucifix is always before his eyes?

At the Council, the bishops requested such a diminution of fast and abstinence that these prescriptions have practically disappeared. We must recognize the fact that this disappearance is a consequence of the ecumenical and protestant spirit which denies the necessity of our participation for the application of the merits of Our Lord to each one of us for the remission of our sins and the restoration of our divine affiliation [i.e., character as adoptive sons of God].

In the past the commandments of the Church provided for:

  • an obligatory fast on all days of Lent with the exception of Sundays, for the three ember days, and for many vigils;
  • abstinence was for all Fridays of the year, the Saturdays of Lent, and, in numerous dioceses, all the Saturdays of the year.

What remains today of these prescriptions?

  • the fast for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, 
  • abstinence for Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. [Note: the present law in New Zealand does not oblige on Friday in Lent]

One wonders at the motives for such a drastic diminution.

Who are obliged to observe the fast?

Adults from age 21 to 60. [Note: the present law is 18-60]

And who are obliged to observe abstinence?

All faithful from the age of 7 years. [Note: the present law is 14]

What does the fast mean?

To fast means to take only one (full) meal a day to which one may add two collations (or small meals) one in the morning, one in the evening which, when combined do not equal a full meal.

What is meant by abstinence?

By abstinence is meant that one abstains from meat.

Msgr Lefebvre with Eucharistic Crusaders in November 1983

The Archbishop Continues

The faithful who have a true spirit of faith and who profoundly understand the motives of the Church which have been mentioned above, will wholeheartedly accomplish not only the light prescriptions of today but, entering into the spirit of Our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, will endeavor to make reparation for the sins which they have committed and for the sins of their family, their neighbors, friends and fellow citizens.

It is for this reason that they will add to the actual prescriptions, be it the fast for all Fridays of Lent, or abstinence from all alcoholic beverages or abstinence from television, or other similar sacrifices. They will make an effort to pray more, to assist more frequently at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to recite the Rosary and not to miss evening prayers with the family. They will detach themselves from their superfluous material goods in order to aid the seminaries, help establish schools, help their priests adequately furnish the chapels and to help establish novitiates for nuns and brothers.

The prescriptions of the Church do not concern fast and abstinence alone but the obligation of the Paschal Communion [Easter Duty] as well.

Here is what the Vicar of the Diocese of Sion, in Switzerland, recommended to the faithful of that diocese on 20 February 1919:

  • During Lent, the pastors will have the Stations of the Cross twice a week; one day for the children of the schools and another day for the other parishioners. After the Stations of the Cross, they will recite the Litany of the Sacred Heart.
  • During Passion Week, which is to say, the week before Palm Sunday, there will be a Triduum in all parish churches. Instruction—Litany of the Sacred Heart in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament—Benediction. In these instructions the pastors will simply and clearly remind their parishioners of the principal conditions to receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily.
  • The time during which one may fulfill the Easter Duty has been set for all parishes from Passion Sunday to the first Sunday after Easter.

Why are these directives no longer useful today?

Let us profit from this salutary time during the course of which Our Lord is accustomed to dispense grace abundantly. Let us not imitate the foolish virgins who having no oil in their lamps found the door of the bridegroom's house closed and this terrible response: "nescio vos"—"I know thee not." Blessed are they who have the spirit of poverty, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The spirit of poverty means the spirit of detachment from things of this world.

Blessed are they who weep, for they shall be consoled. Let us think of Jesus in the Garden of Olives who wept for our sins. It is henceforth for us to weep for our sins and for those of our brethren.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for holiness, for they shall be satisfied. Holiness—sanctity is attained by means of the Cross, penance and sacrifice. If we truly seek perfection then we must follow the Way of the Cross.

May we, during this Lenten Season, hear the call of Jesus and Mary and engage ourselves to follow them in this crusade of prayer and penance!

May our prayers, our supplications, and our sacrifices obtain from heaven (the grace) that those in places of responsibility in the Church return to Her true and holy Traditions which is the only solution to revive and reflourish the institutions of the Church again.

Let us love to recite this, the conclusion of the Te Deum: In te Domine speravi, non confundar in aeternum—"ln Thee, O Lord, I have hoped. I will not be confounded in eternity.":

+ Marcel Lefebvre

Sexagesima Sunday

14 February 1982

Rickenbach, Switzerland