Fast Before Communion Is an Important Practice
Fr. Richard Kunst
Although it may seem small, one of the most important things pastors do on a weekly basis is greet their parishioners before and after Mass.
That brief handshake and greeting is the only interaction we get with more than 90 percent of our congregation. As little of an interaction as it is, it makes it easier for us to minister to our people when they are in time of need. For me personally, it is challenging to minister to people whom I never see darken the door of the church. I don’t know them. I am a stranger to them.
I try to be at the door of the church not only after Mass but also before Mass begins, and I have to confess this can also be a source of frustration. The frustration is from seeing people come in who have clearly just finished their last bites of breakfast in the car on their way to Mass. It is not uncommon to see people come in with food in their hands. I have heard from brother priests of people in their choirs eating and drinking right up to the start of Mass.
Why is this an issue? Because Catholics are expected to keep a Eucharistic fast for one hour prior to receiving Communion (not one hour before Mass). The exceptions are water and medicine. Those who are sick or caring for the sick are not bound by this discipline.
The exact origins of the Eucharistic fast are unknown, and practice of it has not always been consistent, but we have evidence dating back to the fourth century. Both in 393 and 397 there were North African Councils stating that the Eucharist was to be consumed before any other food of the day. St. Augustine states basically the same thing, writing in one of his letters, “. . . for from that time [of the earliest church] it pleased the Holy Spirit to appoint, for the honor of such a great sacrament, that the body of the Lord should take the precedence of all other food entering the mouth of a Christian; and it is for this reason that the custom referred to is universally observed” (Ep 54.6).
In the 20th century, the Eucharistic fast changed in stages. In 1905, Pope St. Pius X articulated the strict midnight fast from food and drink, including medicine and water. You can still hear “old-timers” talk about how they could not eat anything after midnight if they were going to Communion the next morning. It’s a good thing they didn’t have evening Masses back then!
Later that was judged to be an obstacle to encouraging more frequent reception of Communion, so in 1957, Pope Pius XII cut the fast time to three hours. In 1964, Pope Paul VI reduced the fast to one hour before receiving Communion, giving us our current church discipline. (Again, the sick and those caring for the sick are exempted.)
That’s the history. But why do it? First we need to note that it is not a penitential fast like those we have during Lent. The reason for the fast is suggested in St. Augustine’s quote cited above: The Eucharist is the first and greatest sustenance for Catholics. It is above and more important than all other means of nourishment.
The Eucharist is the bread of angels, different from all other types of food. It is to be honored in a way that sets it apart from other foods. So the motivation for the fast is first and foremost a way of showing respect to the Blessed Sacrament. It is not the same sort of food as what you had for breakfast, or what you had as a snack. Rather, it is our closest encounter with God this side of the grave.
When we refrain from eating prior to our reception at Mass, we not only make ourselves clean in a physical and spiritual sort of way for the Lord, we also are imitating Christ insofar as we are emptying ourselves. The Greek word is “kenosis,” something that St. Paul writes about in his letter to the Philippians: “[Jesus] Who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself . . . .”
When we fast before Communion, we have an opportunity to imitate the one we are about to receive.
The Eucharistic fast is not a medieval holdover; it is an important spiritual component to the most important thing we Catholics do. It is something very simple, and if we are deliberate in observing it, then it will only enrich our participation in the Lord’s Supper. Besides, if we all observe this discipline as we ought to, we will avoid making our pastors feeling awkward and frustrated before Mass!