Sunday, December 4, 2011

A reminder to practice fasting and abstinence on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception

In the years immediately before Vatican II the particular laws of the Catholic Church in the Philippines on fasting and abstinence set aside December 7 as one of the four days of fasting and complete or total abstinence in this country. The three other days were Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and the 23rd of December (except when December 23 fell on a Sunday, in which case fasting and abstinence were transferred to December 22).

(The days of abstinence without fasting were the Fridays of Lent. It will certainly surprise many of our readers to learn that, outside of Lent, "meatless Fridays" were no longer required in the Philippines long before Vatican II; this was a legacy of the Spanish era, which saw the institution of the "Crusader Privileges" and relatively lenient fasting rules for the so-called Indios [the native Filipinos]But I digress.)

Prior to 1966, December 7 was also commonly observed as a day of fasting and abstinence  in the rest of the Roman Catholic world, including the United States, Canada and England.

From 1879 to 1955, December 7 was observed in the entire Roman Catholic Church as the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception; its Mass was celebrated in violet vestments, as this Vigil was a spiritual and penitential preparation for the great feast of December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Even after the Vigil had been officially removed from the calendar of the Roman Rite, the fact that December 7 is the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the day when the then-widespread Immaculate Conception novenas ended, naturally suggested that it be kept as a day of purification so that the faithful could be better able to celebrate the feast. This is in keeping with the ascetical tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, as exemplified, for instance, by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696 - 1787, founder of the Redemptorists) who recommended in his masterpiece The Glories of Mary that devotees of the Blessed Virgin should observe the nine days before her feast days with a variety of prayers and pious acts, including "some external mortification of hair-cloth, discipline, etc., with fasting, or some abstinence at table from fruits or other agreeable food, at least in part; chewing also some bitter herb; and on the vigil of the feast fast on bread and water. But all this must be done always with the permission of a spiritual Father." (Source.) St. Alphonsus Liguori's suggestion is, of course, but a suggestion (albeit one with great weight because it was authored by a saint who echoed the grand tradition of Western asceticism) and according to the current law of the Roman Catholic Church there is no sin in not fasting at all on the day before a major feast; it is certainly much more fitting to do so, though. 

It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that we Catholics are so eloquent when it comes to speaking about prayers and pious exercises in honor of the glorious and immaculate Virgin Mary, and yet we rarely if ever talk of fasting or almsgiving in her honor. 

(Let it be noted that the old "Vigil of the Immaculate Conception" is not to be confused with the "Vigil Mass of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception" that is currently practiced in many places throughout the Catholic world. The former was a distinct feast of the Mother of God, observed with violet vestments and widely considered as a day of penance in the years until its abolition in 1955. The latter, on the other hand, merely refers to Masses using the readings and propers of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception that are celebrated not on December 8 itself but on the afternoon or evening of December 7, in line with the permission given by current Canon Law for people to satisfy their Sunday and Holy Day obligation by attending any Mass celebrated in a Catholic rite on the afternoon or evening of the day before the actual day of obligation. To add to the confusion, some churches today use the phrase "Vigil of the Immaculate Conception" to refer to Vigil Masses for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.)

The promulgation of Paenitemini in 1966 precipitated a radical change in the laws of fasting and abstinence not just in the Philippines but in the whole world, followed by further reductions in fasting and abstinence that were authorized in the Philippines by the Holy See upon the request of the Filipino Catholic hierarchy. A long and detailed article on the current legislation on penance in the Roman Catholic Church as a whole and in the Philippines in particular can be found in the "Filipino Catholicism" blog: Fasting and Abstinence in the Philippines and for Filipinos, Part 1.)

Nevertheless, the fact that the law has been changed does not necessarily mean that the older customs and traditions of the Church should thereby be discarded or forbidden. Nothing prevents the faithful from doing more -- much more -- than what the law requires when it comes to the practice of penance, as long as no canons or moral norms are violated, charity and humility are maintained and the spirit of the liturgical year is not disregarded. (For instance, it is not a sin to fast on Sundays, but fasting on Sunday is definitely inappropriate given the character of Sunday as a "little Pascha".) Fasting was for a very long time an integral part of Catholic life throughout the year, and there is no reason why we who live during the 21st century can't fast for more than two days a year! Given the distractions of our age and the wave of sinful filth and secularism engulfing both Church and country,  physical penances are all the more necessary.

It is also important to undertake at least a bit of fasting and abstinence during December as a necessary corrective to the extreme commercialization and endless partying (with its accompanying gluttony) of the "Christmas season". Although we Filipinos are fortunate in that the strength of the "Simbang Gabi" tradition has prevented the complete disappearance from public consciousness of any special spiritual preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord, even this is not enough. Let us not only pray, but also fast!

Catholic families can also be encouraged to observe the custom of lighting a special "Mary Candle" on the evening prior to December 8.

First photo: Antique statue of the Inmaculada Concepcion in the Rectory of the Cathedral of the Diocese of San Pablo, Laguna. Source

Second photo: Antique statue of La Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepcion, Binan, Laguna. Source

Source of information on Philippine fasting and abstinence laws in the years just before 1966: the 1960 Philippine edition of For My Friend: A Prayer Book for the Young by Bishop Morrow printed by the Catholic Trade School, 1916 Oroquieta Manila. Nihil Obstat by Henricus A. Coffer S.J., Censor Deputatus. Reimprimatur by Michael J. O'Doherty, Archbishop of Manila from 1916 to 1949.)

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