FAQs: Fasting and abstinence during Lent

MANILA, Philippines — As Filipinos celebrate the Holy Week this year, Catholics are reminded of their obligation to perform some penance – which mainly includes fasting and/or abstinence.

However, there are certain people who can be exempted from these practices. There are also other ways that a person can show their devotion without necessarily giving up the amount of food that he or she needs, especially during the pandemic.


INQUIRER.net answers some of those questions regarding the practice of fasting and abstinence during Lent.

What is fasting?

“Fasting is one of those two means of Lenten penances which canon law obliges (the other being abstinence).  In canon 1251, fasting is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  In canon 1252, fasting binds those who have attained their majority,” explained the Philippine Jesuits.

“What does this mean? It means that this law applies to you from midnight of your eighteenth birthday until the beginning of your sixtieth year, that is, until midnight of your fifty-ninth birthday,” the group added.

When fasting for Lent, only one full meal is allowed per day. Having up to two light meals is also permitted to maintain strength. Taking liquids including milk and fruit juices in between meals is likewise accepted.

However, eating between meals is prohibited.

What is abstinence?

Abstinence is commonly observed on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and on all Fridays during the 40-day Lent unless a Solemnity should fall on a Friday.

“The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat, but eggs, milk products, and condiments made from meat may be eaten.  Fish and all cold-blooded animals may be eaten, for example, frogs, clams, turtles, etc.,” the Philippine Jesuits detailed.

“The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year and older. One is not bound on the fourteenth birthday, but begins to abstain at midnight at the close of the birthday.”

Why do Catholics fast and/or practice abstinence?

Fasting and abstinence are the two canonical forms of penance during Lent.


From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, Catholics are expected to comply with the Catholic Church’s teaching on Lent, which includes the penance or act of mortification.

“[A]ny human pain observed or experienced as a sign that one remembers and wishes to participate in the sufferings that our Lord Jesus Christ went through for the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation,” the Jesuit group said.

Who is exempted from these practices?

Based on traditional Catholic teachings, senior citizens, below 14 years old, and the very sick are exempted from fasting and abstinence during Lent.

According to the Philippine Jesuits, those who are materially poor and homeless may also be exempted from the practice.

“[T]he maids and houseboys and other laborers who have to work more than nine hours a day, employees whose jobs require them to be attentive like policemen and security guards, doctors and nurses on duty, and the like, must be exempted,” the organization added.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) stated that pregnant or nursing women can be excluded as well.

In the Philippines, there have been extraordinary exemptions. One is a village in San Fernando, Pampanga called Cutud which was given dispensation to eat meat because the town fiesta fell on Good Friday.

In 2015, then Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle has granted Filipino-Chinese and Chinese Catholics in its episcopal jurisdiction exemption or dispensation from fasting and abstinence as they marked the Lunar New Year that fell on Ash Wednesday.

What can I do if I can’t fast or abstain?

“Offer your pains (and the work that you do that makes it unwise for you to fast) in exchange for the canonical Church requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,” said the Philippine Jesuits on its website.

“It is basic in any human law that one cannot oblige anyone to observe something which is not possible or even inhuman to follow.  The two forms of penances, fasting and abstinence, are more realistically applied to the moneyed, able, powerful, and privileged,” it added.

READ: List of practical fasting practices

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) meanwhile teaches that except on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday, performing exercises of piety like reading the Bible, attending Masses, or praying the Holy Rosary can be a substitute for abstinence.

Acts of charity including visiting the sick and prisoners, giving alms to the poor, or teaching catechism are also ways to fulfill your Catholic obligation without abstinence.

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