How Was Lent Observed Before Vatican II?

Changes in the Rules for Fasting and Abstinence

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The rules for fasting and abstinence changed as part of Vatican II. But just as the revision of the liturgical calendar and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo (the current ordinary form of the Mass) were not part of Vatican II (though many people think they were), so, too, the revision of the rules for fasting and abstinence (not just for Lent but for the entire year) coincided with Vatican II but were separate from it.

But Changes Were Made

That revision was made by Pope Paul VI in a document entitled Paenitemini, which "invites everyone to accompany the inner conversion of the spirit with the voluntary exercise of external acts of penitence." Rather than relieve the faithful of the requirement to do penance through fasting and abstinence, Paul VI called them to do other forms of penance as well.

New Minimum Requirements for Fasting and Abstinence

Paenitemini did, however, set new minimum requirements for fasting and abstinence. Down through the centuries, the Church has adjusted the regulations to fit the spirit of the times. In the Middle Ages, in both the East and the West, eggs and dairy products, as well as all meat, were forbidden, which is how the tradition developed of making pancakes or paczki on Fat Tuesday. In the modern era, however, eggs and dairy were reintroduced in the West, though they continued to be forbidden in the East.

The Traditional Rules

My Father Lasance Missal, published in 1945, gives this summary of the regulations at that time:

  • The Law of Abstinence forbids the use of flesh meat and the juice thereof (soup, etc.). Eggs, cheese, butter and seasonings of food are permitted.
  • The Law of Fasting forbids more than one full meal a day but does not forbid a small amount of food in the morning and in the evening.
  • All Catholics seven years old and over are obliged to abstain. All Catholics from the completion of their twenty-first to the beginning of their sixtieth year, unless lawfully excused, are bound to fast.

As for the application of fasting and abstinence during Lent, the Father Lasance Missal notes:

"Fasting and abstinence are prescribed in the United States on the Fridays of Lent, Holy Saturday forenoon (on all other days of Lent except Sundays fasting is prescribed and meat is allowed once a day) . . . Whenever meat is permitted, fish may be taken at the same meal. A dispensation is granted to the laboring classes and their families on all days of fast and abstinence except Fridays, Ash Wednesday, Wednesday in Holy Week, Holy Saturday forenoon . . . When any member of such a family lawfully uses this privilege all the other members may avail themselves of it also, but those who fast may not eat meat more than once a day."

So, to answer the reader's specific questions, in the years immediately before Pope Paul VI issued Paenitemini, eggs, and dairy were allowed during Lent, and the meat was allowed once per day, except on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent, and before noon on Holy Saturday.

No Fasting on Sundays

Meat and all other items were allowed on the Sundays in Lent, because Sundays, in honor of the Resurrection of our Lord, can never be days of fasting. (That is why there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday; the Sundays in Lent are not included in the 40 days of Lent. See How Are the 40 Days of Lent Calculated? for more details.)

But Fasting for All 40 Days

And finally, the reader's aunt is correct: The faithful were required to fast for all 40 days of Lent, which meant only one meal, though "a small amount of food" could be taken "in the morning and in the evening."

No one is obliged to go beyond the current rules for fasting and abstinence. In recent years, however, some Catholics who have desired a stricter Lenten discipline have returned to the older regulations, and Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for Lent 2009, has encouraged such a development.

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ThoughtCo. "How Was Lent Observed Before Vatican II?" Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, ThoughtCo. (2021, February 8). How Was Lent Observed Before Vatican II? Retrieved from ThoughtCo. "How Was Lent Observed Before Vatican II?" Learn Religions. (accessed June 3, 2023).