The Roman Catholic Church encourages practicing members of the congregation to fast, abstain from meat, or sacrifice other worldly goods during certain periods as a form of penance and preparation.
But Advent, which encompasses the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is not one of those periods. Catholics are not required to fast during Advent. There are also no specific rules about abstaining from meat on Fridays, as there is during Lent.
Here’s what you need to know.
The Catholic Church Gradually Phased Out Fasting During Advent Over Centuries
The tradition of fasting during the Advent season is one that phased out over a long period of time in the Church’s history. The Catholic News Agency explains that St. Perpetuus, who served as the Bishop of Tours during the fifth century, established that Christians should fast three times per week in the 40-day period leading up to the Christmas celebration. The Council of Macon in 582 also deemed that the congregation should observe the fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during Advent.
Advent appears to have been shortened from 40 days to four weeks beginning around the ninth century. The Catholic News Agency says that as far back as the 1100s, Church leaders began to relax the fasting rules even further. It gradually became customary for only members of the clergy to fast during Advent.
Catholics Are Not Required to Fast Or Abstain From Meat During Advent But Some Practicing Members May Choose to Do So
The Roman Catholic Church does not specifically require its members to fast during Advent. But if adult members of the Church want to fast, then they are encouraged to do so as a form of penance.
Pope Leo I, who served as head of the Church from 440 to 461, preached the spiritual benefits of fasting. An article published on the Catholic Education Resource Center website cited a sermon given by Pope Leo: “What is more effective than fasting, by which we approach God, and, resisting the devil, we overcome indulgent vices. For fasting has always been food for virtue: chaste thoughts, reasonable desires, and more sound deliberations profit from fasting. And through these voluntary afflictions, our flesh dies to concupiscence and our spirit is renewed for moral excellence.”
In the Catholic Church, fasting does not necessarily mean going an entire day without food. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains on its website that fasting in the Catholic tradition means eating only one full meal during the day. Two smaller snacks are also allowed.
The only days on the calendar that the Church requires fasting both take place during Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics are also required to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, though some members may still choose to forgo meat on Fridays all year.
In 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops made abstaining from meat on Fridays outside of Lent an optional practice, as explained by the National Catholic Register.
Eastern Churches Continues to Observe ‘Philip’s Fast’ During the Christmas Season
Western Catholics do not have to fast during Advent. But the Eastern Ordothox and Eastern Catholic Churches have continued a fasting tradition.
The practice is called Philip’s Fast, named after the Apostle Philip. It begins on November 15 and lasts until Christmas Eve on December 24. It is a period of 40 days that mirrors the Lenten season.
The Orthodox Church in America explains the rules of fasting on its website:
“It should be noted that in the Fast of the Holy Apostles and of the Nativity of Christ, on Tuesday and Thursday we do not eat fish, but only oil or wine. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we eat neither oil nor wine…. On Saturday and Sunday we eat fish. If there occur on Tuesday or Thursday a Saint who has a [Great] Doxology, we eat fish; if on Monday, the same; but if on Wednesday or Friday, we allow only oil and wine…. If it be a Saint who has a Vigil on Wednesday or Friday, or the Saint whose temple it is, we allow oil and wine and fish…. But from the 20th of December until the 25th, even if it be Saturday or Sunday, we do not allow fish.”