The Communion Fast: Published for the Joint Committee on Discipline of the American Church Union and the Clerical Union.
By Ralph Edward Coonrad.
New York: American Church Publications, 1953.
[Since this brochure was written a copy of the Latin-English text of the Papal Constitution on Eucharistic Fast has been received. See: John C. Ford, SJ. Foreword by Richard J. Cushing, Archbishop of Boston. The New Eucharistic Legislation. A Commentary on “Christus Dominus” (New York: P. J. Kennedy and Sons, 1953).]
“When ye come together therefore in one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating everyone hath taken before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.” I Corinthians xi: 20, 21.
The second sentence of this text has been used, ineffectively I “think, to attempt to prove that the communion fast is derived from fundamental law. It is used here to introduce the general, but necessarily brief, discussion of the theology, rule of law or custom, concerning the communion fast.
Re-interpretation of Fasting Discipline
In the latter part of 1952 newspapers throughout the world reported that Pope Pius XII had issued new rules for the celebration of Mass, such as afternoon Masses, and that he had re-interpreted the rules for fasting communion in the Roman Catholic Church.1 Most Anglicans have not seen the official document, but quite full accounts which have come to hand stress the extraordinary privilege of celebrating Mass in the afternoon or evening as lying within the discretion of the diocesan bishop to grant license where such Masses are needed for night workers and others. The new rules were laid down in what is called a “Papal Constitution.” “Constitutions” are laws promulgated, i.e. enacted, by the person or persons empowered to put forth such laws with authority to enforce them. In Canon Law Constitutions may be of three kinds: (1) edicts, (2) decrees, and (3) rescripts or epistles (letters). Such Constitutions may be (1) general, that is, they may be intended to form a precedent for other similar cases; or, (2) they may be special, particular, or individual (directed to particular persons) and thus not intended to form a precedent. It is apparent that the Constitution of Pius XII is general and, therefore, meant to form a precedent henceforth to be followed by Roman Catholics. This general Constitution is a rule of law applied to dogmatic and disciplinary matters, in this case the discipline of communion fast.
 By the Papal Constitution under discussion fasting before communion has been relaxed for Roman Catholics; communicants may drink water—or any fluid other than intoxicants—one hour before Mass. However, the Pope is emphatic in stating that reduction of the communion fast is a privilege granted in specific cases. It is not a blanket dispensation from all communion fast for persons who are well and can, without danger to themselves, abide by the strict rule of fast. The Pope has granted authority to suspend the communion fast for persons or places (such as countries or missionary districts) where authority resting in bishops and confessors may permit reduction of, or abstinence from, fast.
It appears that the Pope now considers that fluid, allowed by rule, taken before Mass—medicines, water, coffee, fruit juices—does not break the communion fast. What affect has this re-interpretation by a Patriarch of the Catholic Church of a supposedly strict and unalterable rule upon Anglicans? Many Anglicans have come to think, rightly or wrongly, that the rule to fast before communion unalterably binds them in conscience, and that to disobey or ignore it is analogous to mortal sin. The Anglican Communion, including, of course, the Episcopal Church, is not bound by any rulings or decisions of the Pope—even though Anglicans may take moral cognizance of what he says as a Bishop in the Universal Church, and as a learned ecclesiastic. Anglicans, particularly those who have been taught to abide strictly by the communion fast (and other fasts), may now wonder where they stand. Have they been “sold down the river” by a Catholic primate to whom they owe no allegiance, but who, nevertheless, wields much influence in disciplines of the spiritual life which are more or less universally practiced? There have been, and are, some Anglicans who seriously, and rather whimsically, believe that the fasts can be remitted only by the Pope, and they, therefore, pay little attention to the Anglican position on fasting (such as it is in theory and practice), or to the right of Anglican bishops to rule on the matter. Let’ it be admitted that many Anglican bishops (or priests for that matter) do not appear to be ascetically inclined, and that fasting, whether on Fridays or before communion, is among the least of their worries. Bad examples of fasting disciplines many bishops (and priests) may be, but there remain certain rules or principles of fasting which the Universal Church holds and upon which the Pope, speaking for Roman Catholics, has merely ruled in his capacity as sovereign law-giver of his Church. His ruling in this matter immediately concerns authority delegated by him to bishops and confessors within his jurisdiction.
Who may Dispense from Communion Fast?
Obviously, Anglicans seeking relief from communion fast cannot take their appeal to Rome; Rome has no authority over this Church. To whom, then, should appeals for relief from the fasts be taken? Dr. Darwell Stone, late Warden of Pusey House in Oxford and certainly not a Liberal (in the current use of that word), when confronted with this question held that a bishop or even a confessor could properly dispense from fast before communion. (See: Darwell Stone: Churchman and Counsellor, by F. L. Cross, at page 241.) The plain answer to this question is, then, to appeal to the nearest authority in the Universal Church with power to dispense, that is, the bishop of the diocese or him to whom such authority has been delegated, that is, the confessor.
Four Kinds of Fast
There are four kinds of fast. (1) SPIRITUAL FAST—abstinence from all unholy pleasures, without which fasting has no value. (2) MORAL FAST—habitual regulation of one’s food in accordance with right reason and the limitations of necessity. (3) NATURAL FAST—that which is proper to the senses, i.e. abstinence from all food. (4) ECCLESIASTICTAL FAST—abstinence from flesh meat and certain kinds of food; one meal taken during the day at a given hour.
We are concerned only with NATURAL FAST (which includes communion fast) and the ecclesiastical discipline which governs it. In the early Church fasting was considered paramount to receiving communion, and there was a time in the early Church that many Christians thought of communion as breaking the fast. Indeed, receiving of holy communion did come at the end of long station fasts. Tertullian, first of the Latin Fathers, answers some criticisms of Christians, and others, on this matter. He says that to receive communion is actually to consummate the fast. The Homilies of the Episcopal Church, well known to our founding fathers in the early nineteenth century, interpret this principle for all fasts: the end of the fast determines its purpose and its value. St. Augustine of Hippo laid down the rule of communion fast in a letter to a friend, one Januarius (in the fifth century): “Nay, for it has pleased the Holy Ghost that, in honour of so great a Sacrament, the Body of the Lord should enter the mouth of the Christian before any other food, for it is the custom observed throughout the world.” However, Augustine also says that the disciples did not fast before receiving communion, but he neglects to give the reason. The reason, which [5/6] appears to be generally accepted, why the disciples did not abide by the fasts, as then determined in Jewish law, was, to paraphrase our Lord’s words, because the guests of the bridechamber do not fast while the bridegroom is with them. But when he leaves them “then shall they fast.” The “bridegroom,” of course, refers to our Lord.
Development of Communion Fast
Augustine refers to the rule of communion fast as one of “custom” and not of law, even though certain of the Provincial Councils had ruled on the subject especially for priests and widows. For centuries there were numerous rules for priests on fasting before celebrating Mass, and certain principles of fast were laid down by the Fathers of the Church following the example of our Lord’s fasts. In A.D. 393 the first rule on communion fast appeared in a canon of the Provincial Council of Hippo. This canon was confirmed by the Third General Council of Carthage, A.D. 397, and required the celebrant to fast before Mass except on one day, Maundy Thursday. These African Canons were adopted but amended by the Eastern General Council of Trullo, circa A.D. 691, when fasting before communion was required before all Masses.
The question arises: Is communion fast a discipline resting on divine law, or does it rest on ecclesiastical (church) law? Is communion fast a fundamental law, that is a law derived from the authority of the apostles speaking in our Lord’s name?
The great theologian and canonist, Suarez (A.D. 1548-1617) says: “One thing is certain: the precept concerning the receiving of the Eucharist before all food and drink is not imposed jure divino,” that is by law of God. Without entering into the question of what is the law of God and where is it found, the general principle of the canonists seems to have been, and continues to be, that no law-giver of the Church can dispense from a law of God. In the Medieval Church some of the Popes did dispense from divine and natural law in certain cases, notably marriage causes involving degrees of consanguinity or affinity. Certain phases of divine and natural law must, obviously, seek clearer interpretation in different ages—cf. the Levitical code of consanguinity and affinity. But the principle seems well established that an attempt to dispense from divine law is a stretch of power on the part of an ecclesiastical law-giver. If the rule of communion fast were imposed jure divino, like the Ten Commandments and the Summary of the Law, no lawgiver, be he Pope or bishop, nor any other person could dispense from it at any time regardless of the person’s physical condition.
 There have been theologians, including some Anglicans, who have tried to trace the communion fast to the apostles, but without success. To assist in proving their case they called to their defense the second sentence of the text which introduces this paper. The passage comes from St. Paul, and has been used to attempt to prove that the rule against food and drink before “the Lord’s Supper” is derived directly from the apostles. But many renowned theologians, Roman and Anglican, find that this passage, after close study, proves nothing of the sort. The communion fast, therefore, cannot rely upon fundamental law.
The truth is that the communion fast was a pious custom of the Universal Church, as St. Augustine says, which developed into a rule with force of law. It was, and is, a reverent, devotional, and proper way to receive the Holy Communion before satisfying the cravings of one’s stomach. From a custom with force of law it was finally adopted into the general canons of the Church. By adoption into canonical codes it comes automatically under human law, just as ecclesiastical law is under human law. The rule is considered as human legislation regarding holy things. Fast before communion has been, since the early Church, part of the customary and canonical discipline of Catholic churchmen. It is meant to foster piety, and subject the flesh to the supremacy of the spirit. Until changed or dispensed by the authority which promulgated it, or by one to whom such authority is delegated, the law could not be, in conscience, disobeyed. Eventually, the separation of the Roman Catholic and English Churches came about, and with this change came also the question concerning fasts not provided in the Book of Common Prayer—were fasts not mentioned in the Prayer Book binding on Anglican consciences? Communion fasts fell into general disuse throughout the Anglican Communion, little heeded in the American Church as in any other branch of the Communion—but the fasts before communion were not entirely obliterated. In fact a considerable number of churchmen abided by the communion fast. Many claim, and rightly so, that the autocephalous Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury are bound by the Catholic Canon Law and discipline in force in 1534 (25 Hen. VIII, c. 19), and not since abrogated or amended by specific legislation. If this is so, Anglicans are bound by the fasts,/including communion fast, which have not been entirely superceded by the wide-spread practice of non-fasting communions, no matter how wide-spread that practice may be. Hence, the discipline is, in conscience at least, binding.
But the question remains as to whether or not the communion [7/8] fast is merely a pious act voluntarily assumed and just as voluntarily relinquished, or, whether as custom adopted into written law it is binding on Anglican churchmen. It is no answer to the question to say that vast numbers of churchmen ignore this and other facts for one reason or another. Ignoring a deeply ingrained custom which has the force of law does not mitigate the obligation to abide by the law. The custom of fasting communion did not entirely disappear throughout Anglicanism after the Reformation, even though laxity in fasting grew just as laxity in celebration of the Holy Communion grew. Some churchmen think that a custom of non-fasting communion superceded, as general practice of the Church, the older custom of fast before receiving. But the rule of communion fast had never so completely fallen into disuse as to obliterate it altogether. The Oxford Movement, in the early nineteenth century, gave new life to the rule, and foreshadowed a growing and constant use of the ancient discipline. But this is not to say that the rule is equally binding on everyone, and that it cannot be reduced in certain instances and for good cause.
Edward Bouverie Pusey, of the English Tractarians, once said that he could not impose a rule of fast on a sick person, although he had accepted the rule for himself. It may have been that Dr. Pusey was thinking of the rule of fast as a personal discipline, a voluntary and self-imposed act which he felt he could not impose upon others least able to fast. But he did not say this about the rule for a well person. Be this as it may, the ancient rule of communion fast, whether of custom or positive law, is, we hold, binding in conscience on Anglicans—certainly this is the considered position of those Anglicans who believe in a continuity, organic as well as functional, of Catholic discipline with the Church of the ages. But the rule of communion fast is not, and has not been, equally binding everywhere and under all conditions of life; the rule has varied, both as to person and place. However, the principle must be stressed that relief from the rule, i.e. relief from its obligations, is proper in certain instances. Such relief must be sought only in the power to dispense from the rule, namely, the bishop of the diocese, or those persons to whom he has delegated the power to act in his stead in such matters, that is, priests such as rectors or vicars of parishes who act as confessors. In medicine the patient is not the best diagnostician of his own case. He needs the advice and guidance of a person objectively minded and skilled in such matters. So it is in the spiritual life, a penitent is not the best judge of his own case. He needs a physician of the soul to advise and guide in the spiritual disciplines—and communion fasts, as other fasts, are spiritual [8/9] disciplines. Under no circumstances ought a Catholic Christian take the law or rule of the Church in his own hands. Dispensation from a law, the suspension of the obligation to obey a rule, under Catholic principles of Canon Law, rests in the bishop or one’s confessor. This principle applies to the communion fast, even though it is now widely ignored throughout the Anglican Communion.
Times have Changed
Times have changed since the rules of fasting were laid down centuries ago. Many of these rules were devised under monastic disciplines and it is a question whether monastic rules of discipline, even in the spiritual life, are binding upon the laity who do not take monastic vows. The age has changed from agriculture to commercial to industrial pursuits. Large numbers of communicants must travel great distances to Mass. The age of the donkey, horse, and sailing vessel has past; this is the age of stream-lined cars and jet planes. One does not now fall out of bed and into church. For many people the beginning of the day is in the afternoon, or at night. Electricity has changed our working hours. Industrial changes have brought about changes in our living conditions. It is foolish to bind people to rules designed for other days, and other living conditions. There was a time when not to communicate was considered mortal sin, and the person refusing to communicate was subject to excommunication. The provision for such severe discipline appears in the Apostolic Canons of the primitive Church. The general rule in Catholic discipline still holds, that it is a divine law to communicate, but it is merely ecclesiastical law to fast. A lesser law must give place to a greater law. Consequently, when a human law interferes with a divine law the human law must give place.
To deny a sick person communion, or one unable to come fasting to church without great physical stress, is to deny a greater law to communicate with reasonable regularity. There are many people, old and young, who find it almost impossible to go for long periods without relief from strict fast. They deprive themselves of the Body of the Lord because they will not break their fast before communion. For them the fast must be re-interpreted, and it is not unCatholic to do so. It is no less a Catholic, however Roman, than Cardinal Archbishop Gasparri, late Cardinal Secretary of State under Pius XI, who held the law to communicate of equal if not greater importance than the law to fast. This principle of the law applies in the Anglican Communion because it is true. If the fast [9/10] endangers the life or health of a communicant, the fast must be reduced. If, because of the vicissitudes of life, strict fast prohibits a person to take communion, the fast for that person must be suspended.
Conditions for Dispensation from Communion Fast
What persons may seek relief from fast under Catholic discipline? (1) Young children, and older persons of certain age, by reason of age and incapacity. (2) Persons plagued by physical weakness, poverty, malnutrition; women in pregnancy. (3) Persons doing laborious work when to fast would endanger their health. (4) Persons who practice true piety, when the enforcement of strict rules of fast would actually inhibit the complete fulfillment of devotional rules. But the strict rule of fast is not hereby annuled or abrogated. It is merely suspended in certain instances, for unavoidable conditions when to abide by strict fast would be more unjust than to reduce it. This is, we think, a sensible interpretation of the communion fast.
Fasting and the Prayer Life
Generally speaking, the communion fast must remain for all persons well enough, and capable enough, to abide by it. The purpose of dispensation is not to encourage laxity in spiritual matters. Many churchmen merely think themselves unable fast. By force of habit, or, perhaps fear, they do not trust themselves away from food for a long period. Their habits have become psychologically (and spiritually) set; they think they cannot fast and their stomachs react accordingly. The problem of fasting, particularly the communion fast, is probably as much a matter of psychological blocks and nervous reactions as it is a spiritual problem. It is a spiritual problem to the extent that the person has little confidence, faith, or trust in himself—or in God. His fears, although beneath the surface, are more apparent than he thinks. Fasting is prayer in action; it is part of doing one’s religion. It is an act of faith. Fasting is of the essence of self-sacrifice, self-offering. Essentially, the fasts, particularly the communion fast, are based upon these spiritual principles, rather than upon a rule of law. They become imbedded in the law only because the law acts, in this instance, as a guide for the spiritual life. Thus, fast before communion is part of the prayer, devotional, and disciplinary life.
Object of Communion Fast
The object of fasting before receiving communion is (1) to protect the Sacrament from abuse, and (2) to discipline the person in the Way of the Cross, which is the Way of Christ. Those who can practice fast before communion are in conscience duty bound to do so. Christ offered His life as a sacrifice, and so must we in our own small and imperfect way. But for those who cannot fast, except that they endanger their health, or for other reasons just as compelling, the fasts may be reduced. They are privileged to seek relief, not by dispensing themselves, but by appealing to their bishop or confessor.
A Statement by The Anglo-Catholic Council
The following is a statement published in the London “Church Times” in May 1954 by the English Anglo-Catholic Council, representing the Church Union, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, the Federation of Catholic Priests, the Guild of All Souls and the Servants of the Sanctuary.
The Anglo-Catholic Council regards these points as of importance:
1. The eucharistic fast is an ancient rule of the Church, which ought to be upheld and observed.
2. This fast is an integral part of the normal and traditional preparation of the whole man, body and soul, for a right approach to the Sacrament of the Altar.
3. It follows from the principles of moral theology, that if the ecclesiastical rule of the fast comes into clear conflict with the divine precept of Communion, mitigation of the fast becomes necessary.
4. The present practice of the Church in East and West is such that it cannot now be maintained that there is oecumenical authority [11/12] for limiting mitigation of the fast to the case of those who are at the point of death.
5. In particular: the present shortage of priests imposes in many instances the necessity for a priest to celebrate and preach several times on a Sunday, often at widely separate times and places, and the strict observance of the fast may, therefore, mean his incurring a serious strain and may make an adequate discharge of his pastoral duties difficult or even impossible; in such cases it would seem reasonable that the priest should feel at liberty to take liquid food before celebrating.
6. In general: circumstances such as ill-health, infirmity, or conditions of work may make the practice of regular or frequent Communion impossible if the fast is observed in its strictness, but it is desirable that no one should be the sole judge in his own case, and the Council, therefore, recommends that the advice of the confessor or parish priest should be sought as to whether similar mitigations should be permitted.
7. The Council is of the opinion that the taking of medicine (strictly so called) should not be regarded as breaking the fast.