What Are the Rules for Fasting Before Communion?

How Long Must Catholics Fast, And What Are the Exceptions?

Pope Benedict XVI gives Polish President Holy Communion.
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The rules for fasting before Communion are fairly straightforward, but there's a surprising amount of confusion regarding them. While the rules for fasting before Communion have changed over the centuries, the most recent change was over 50 years ago. Before then, a Catholic who wished to receive Holy Communion used to have to fast from midnight on. What are the current rules for fasting before Communion?

The Current Rules for Fasting Before Communion

The current rules were introduced by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, and are found in Canon 919 of the Code of Canon Law:

  1. A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.
  2. A priest who celebrates the Most Holy Eucharist two or three times on the same day can take something before the second or third celebration even if there is less than one hour between them.
  3. The elderly, the infirm, and those who care for them can receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have eaten something within the preceding hour.

Exceptions for the Sick, the Elderly, and Those Who Care for Them

Regarding point 3, "elderly" is defined as 60 years of age or older. In addition, the Congregation of the Sacraments issued a document, Immensae caritatis, on January 29, 1973, that clarifies the terms of the fast before Communion for "the infirm, and those who care for them":

To give recognition to the dignity of the sacrament and to stir up joy at the coming of the Lord, it is well to observe a period of silence and recollection. It is a sufficient sign of devotion and respect on the part of the sick if they direct their mind for a brief period to this great mystery. The duration of the eucharistic fast, that is, of abstaining from food or alcoholic drink, is reduced to approximately a quarter of an hour for:
  1. the sick in health-care facilities or at home, even if they are not bedridden;
  2. the faithful of advanced years, whether they are confined to their homes because of old age or live in homes for the aged;
  3. sick priests, even if not bedridden, and elderly priests, as regards both celebrating Mass and receiving communion;
  4. persons caring for, as well as the family and friends of, the sick and elderly who wish to receive communion with them, whenever such persons cannot keep the one-hour fast without inconvenience.

Communion for the Dying and Those in Danger of Death

Catholics are dispensed from all of the rules of fasting before Communion when they are in danger of death. This includes Catholics who are receiving Communion as part of Last Rites, with Confession and Anointing of the Sick, and those whose lives may be in imminent danger, such as soldiers receiving Communion at Mass before going into battle.

When Does the One-Hour Fast Start?

Another frequent point of confusion concerns when the clock starts for the Eucharistic fast. The one hour mentioned in Canon 919 is not one hour before Mass, but, as it says, "one hour before holy communion."

That does not mean, however, that we should take a stopwatch to church, or try to figure out the earliest point at which Communion might be distributed at Mass and time our breakfast to end exactly 60 minutes before that. Such behavior misses the point of fasting before Communion. We're meant to use this time to prepare ourselves to receive the Body and Blood of Christ and to call to mind the great sacrifice that this sacrament represents.

Extending the Eucharistic Fast as a Private Devotion

Indeed, it's a good thing to choose to extend the Eucharistic fast if you're able to do so. As Christ Himself said in John 6:55, "For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink." Until 1964, Catholics used to fast from midnight on when receiving Communion, and from apostolic times Christians have tried, when possible, to make Christ's Body their first food of the day. For most people, such a fast would not be an overwhelming burden, and it might draw us closer to Christ in this most holy of sacraments.

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Richert, Scott P. "What Are the Rules for Fasting Before Communion?" Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/rules-for-fasting-before-communion-542845. Richert, Scott P. (2020, August 27). What Are the Rules for Fasting Before Communion? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/rules-for-fasting-before-communion-542845 Richert, Scott P. "What Are the Rules for Fasting Before Communion?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/rules-for-fasting-before-communion-542845 (accessed June 3, 2023).