The Traditional (Pre-1917) Advent Fast in the USA

That Advent is a penitential season is generally well known, and many also know that it was, traditionally, a season for fasting—although the specifics of the fast are hazy for most modern Catholics, probably because it was removed as an obligation in 1917, effectively before living memory.

In this article, we will be looking at the discipline in force in the United States during the 1880s. This is the decade of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, which gave us the classic Baltimore Catechism and the Baltimore Manual of Prayer (from which the information in this article is taken).

The rules then in force were as follows:

To sum up, before the changes of 1917, the Fridays in Advent were kept as days of abstinence and fast—there was only one full meal allowed, and no meat could be eaten at all during the whole day.

Most of us have generally heard the fasting discipline described as one full meal, and two “collations” that together do not add up to a full meal. The Baltimore Manual, however, reflects an earlier formulation and is a bit more specific:

  • Only one full meal allowed, to be taken at noon or later
  • An additional collation of 8 ounces is also allowed: in the evening if the full meal is at noon, or at noon if the main meal is in the evening
  • General custom allows 2 ounces of bread (without butter) in the morning,  with a cup of warm liquid (coffee or tea).
Without being too rigorist about the whole thing, some might well appreciate seeing these fasting rules spelled out so precisely rather than just set out as general guidelines that we—let’s face it—can talk ourselves into mitigating.

Finally, for the benefit of LAJ readers elsewhere in the Anglosphere, the 1909 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia states that Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and Canada fasted on the Wednesdays of Advent as well. There was also, to be sure, variation among dioceses and ecclesiastical provinces, as can be seen in the case of New Orleans above.

Today many will already be observing a penitential fast as an act of reparation and for spiritual cleansing in the Church. As this one-time fast happily coincides with the traditional observance, devout souls might wish to use it as a springboard to take on the venerable Advent fast and, in the process, recover one of our hallowed traditions.

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