Benedict XVI’s Message for Lent


Are you thinking about what you will do for this season of spiritual warfare?

Here is the Holy Father’s message for Lent 2009

My emphases and comments.

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

At the beginning of Lent, which constitutes an itinerary of more intense spiritual training, [Lent is a disciplina] the Liturgy sets before us again three penitential practices that are very dear to the biblical and Christian tradition – prayer, almsgiving, fasting – to prepare us to better celebrate Easter and thus experience God’s power that, as we shall hear in the Paschal Vigil, "dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy, casts out hatred, brings us peace and humbles earthly pride" (Paschal Præconium [the Exsultet] ). For this year’s Lenten Message, [NB] I wish to focus my reflections especially on the value and meaning of fasting. Indeed, Lent recalls the forty days of our Lord’s fasting in the desert, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry. We read in the Gospel: "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry" (Mt 4,1-2). Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law (cf. Ex 34,28) and Elijah’s fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings 19,8), Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter.  [Remember that the Holy Father wrote about this battle in his book about Jesus]

We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it. For this reason, the history of salvation is replete with occasions that invite fasting. In the very first pages of Sacred Scripture, the Lord commands man to abstain from partaking of the prohibited fruit: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Gn 2, 16-17). Commenting on the divine injunction, Saint Basil observes that "fasting was ordained in Paradise," and "the first commandment in this sense was delivered to Adam." He thus concludes: " ‘You shall not eat’ is a law of fasting and abstinence" (cf. Sermo de jejunio: PG 31, 163, 98). Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God. Such was the case with Ezra, who, in preparation for the journey from exile back to the Promised Land, calls upon the assembled people to fast so that "we might humble ourselves before our God" (8,21). The Almighty heard their prayer and assured them of His favor and protection. In the same way, the people of Nineveh, responding to Jonah’s call to repentance, proclaimed a fast, as a sign of their sincerity, saying: "Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?" (3,9). In this instance, too, God saw their works and spared them.

In the New Testament, Jesus brings to light the profound motive for fasting, condemning the attitude of the Pharisees, who scrupulously observed the prescriptions of the law, but whose hearts were far from God. True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father, who "sees in secret, and will reward you" (Mt 6,18). He Himself sets the example, answering Satan, at the end of the forty days spent in the desert that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Mt 4,4). The true fast is thus directed to eating the "true food," which is to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4,34). If, therefore, Adam disobeyed the Lord’s command "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat," the believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in His goodness and mercy.

The practice of fasting is very present in the first Christian community (cf. Acts 13,3; 14,22; 27,21; 2 Cor 6,5). The Church Fathers, too, speak of the force of fasting to bridle sin, especially the lusts of the "old Adam," and open in the heart of the believer a path to God. Moreover, fasting is a practice that is encountered frequently and recommended by the saints of every age. Saint Peter Chrysologus writes: "Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself" (Sermo 43: PL 52, 320. 322).

In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a "therapy" to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God. In the Apostolic Constitution Pænitemini of 1966, the Servant of God Paul VI saw the need to present fasting within the call of every Christian to "no longer live for himself, but for Him who loves him and gave himself for him … he will also have to live for his brethren" (cf. Ch. I). Lent could be a propitious time to present again the norms contained in the Apostolic Constitution, so that the authentic and perennial significance of this long held practice may be rediscovered, and thus assist us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor, the first and greatest Commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel (cf. Mt 22, 34-40).

The faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord. Saint Augustine, who knew all too well his own negative impulses, defining them as "twisted and tangled knottiness" (Confessions, II, 10.18), writes: "I will certainly impose privation, but it is so that he will forgive me, to be pleasing in his eyes, that I may enjoy his delightfulness" (Sermo 400, 3, 3: PL 40, 708). Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.

At the same time, fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, Saint John admonishes: "If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet shuts up his bowels of compassion from him – how does the love of God abide in him?" (3,17). Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother (cf. Encyclical Deus caritas est, 15). By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. It is precisely to keep alive this welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters that I encourage the parishes and every other community to intensify in Lent the custom of private and communal fasts, joined to the reading of the Word of God, prayer and almsgiving. From the beginning, this has been the hallmark of the Christian community, in which special collections were taken up (cf. 2 Cor 8-9; Rm 15, 25-27), the faithful being invited to give to the poor what had been set aside from their fast (Didascalia Ap., V, 20,18). This practice needs to be rediscovered and encouraged again in our day, especially during the liturgical season of Lent[This was an important dimension for St. Pope Leo I "the Great" (+461).  In his preaching he always connects fasting directly to increased almsgiving.]

From what I have said thus far, it seems abundantly clear that fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person. Quite opportunely, an ancient hymn of the Lenten liturgy exhorts: "Utamur ergo parcius, / verbis cibis et potibus, / somno, iocis et arctius / perstemus in custodia Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses."

Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, as the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote, to make the complete gift of self to God (cf. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 21). May every family and Christian community use well this time of Lent, therefore, in order to cast aside all that distracts the spirit and grow in whatever nourishes the soul, moving it to love of God and neighbor. I am thinking especially of a greater commitment to prayer, lectio divina, recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and active participation in the Eucharist, especially the Holy Sunday Mass. With this interior disposition, let us enter the penitential spirit of Lent. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Causa nostrae laetitiae, accompany and support us in the effort to free our heart from slavery to sin, making it evermore a "living tabernacle of God." With these wishes, while assuring every believer and ecclesial community of my prayer for a fruitful Lenten journey, I cordially impart to all of you my Apostolic Blessing.

From the Vatican, 11 December 2008.



[Originally posted on 3 Feb 2009]

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Ed says:

    Thank you!

  2. Creagh says:

    okay Fr Z. I sign up. BUT if you publish anymore pictures of soup/food during lent the deals off..

  3. Dan says:

    “In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning…”

    Not among Catholics attached to the TLM.

    By the way, it will be interesting to observe during this time as to whether the SSPX employs the novel Good Friday “traditional” prayer for the Jews that was invented last year.

  4. a catechist says:

    Great timing! Just found out today I’m expecting–which means no more coffee. My husband offered to give up coffee in solidarity. I’m thinking Joseph Benedict or Joseph Benedetto sounds good….

  5. Jeff Pinyan says:

    I just finished “Faith of our Fathers” by Eamon Duffy, and his final chapter concludes with a lament over the degradation of fasting and abstinence (specifically the Friday fast and abstinence from meat). I’ll post it when I get home.

    I’m also surprised Pope Benedict had this Lenten reflection written in mid-December.

  6. paul says:

    It is interesting that this was posted a week before Septugesima Sunday- the Pope in my opinion was taking into consideration those Catholics attached to the EF of the Mass.

  7. Jeff Pinyan says:

    From “Faith of Our Fathers”, chapter 19, p. 182:

    What was also at stake was the Church’s prophetic integrity, its claim to solidarity with the poor. Considered from this perspective, compulsory fasting and abstinence, practiced regularly, routinely and in common, was a recognition by the Church that identification with the poor and hungry, with those who know themselves to be needy before God because they were needy among men, is not an option for Catholics, but a necessary and definitive sign of our redemption, as essential in its way as as attendance at Mass. The Church has always linked personal asceticism and the search for holiness with this demand for mercy and justice to the poor — the Lenten trilogy of prayer, fasting and almsgiving is fundamental, structural. In abandoning real and regular fasting and abstinence as a corporate and normative expression of our faith — by making it optional — the Church forfeited one of its most eloquent prophetic signs. There is a world of difference between a private devotional gesture, the action of the specially pious, and of the prophetic witness of the whole community, the matter-of-fact witness, repeated week by week, that to be Christian is to stand among the needy.

  8. Sarah says:

    Congrats, Catechist! And thank you, Father, for posting this!

  9. orthodoxy says:

    It is so wonderful to see that the Holy Father is helping the Faithful to redirect their hearts and minds to the true meaning of fasting.

  10. But what is the concrete fast that the Church really encourages us to do during the other 38 days of Lent except for Ash wednesday and Good Friday?

  11. Cortney says:

    As an adult convert to Catholicism I’m a bit confused about fasting. I read that it isn’t mandatory for those over 59, but certainly it must be an option for all who are in good health. I also read that while “fasting” one can have two small meals and one full meal, the two smaller meals not equaling the one larger meal, and that liquids are permitted in between meals. But I can never quite figure out, in practical terms, what this would look like for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and still qualify as fasting). When Jews fast they have nothing, not even water, from sundown one evening to sundown the following evening. But “fasting” obviously means more than simply not eating. I particularly like the idea of almsgiving, giving to others, as it relates to fasting, refraining from something for ourselves. Any fasting guidelines appreciated!

  12. Irish says:

    I don’t think this, unfortunately, will go away without a deflection. From this statement Bishop Williamson feels true remorse for the furor caused by his politically-suicidal remarks.

    So, I have an idea. It’s partly silly, but may be brilliant. He needs to deflect this criticism. How? I think Bishop Williamson should grant another interview in which gives his opinion on intelligent design or the false religion of Darwinism (assuming that he holds views that are in opposition to the “accepted” theory). Let the anti-creationists drown out the current chorus. It’s crazy, but it might just work.

  13. Irish says:

    I just posted to the wrong thread. I don’t know how that happened. Sorry.

  14. Daniel K. says:


    You can find this on “A Catholic Life” blog.

    Ash Wednesday: This is a day of mandatory abstinence and fasting (Can. 1251). All Catholics aged 14 or older must abstain from meat on this day (Can. 1252). Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Also forbidden are soups or gravies made from them. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted.

    However, those between 18 and 59 years of age (Can. 1252), are also bound to fast on Ash Wednesday. On this day one, normal-sized meal and two smaller meals that do not equal the normal meal are allowed. Eating between meals, however, is prohibited although fruit juices and milk are allowed. These rules are much more lenient than centuries past. If you can, truly make your fasting a sacrifice.

    Good Friday: This day is the most somber day in the year when we recall Our Savior’s death. The rules for Ash Wednesday apply to today (Can. 1251).

    The Fridays of Lent: All the Fridays of Lent excluding Good Friday are mandatory days of abstinence from meat (Can. 1250). The abstinence rules outlined under Ash Wednesday apply to today. However, a person may still choose to voluntary fast today. Fasting is to be encouraged, though not mandatory, each Friday of Lent. Traditional Catholics will abtain and fast on both the Fridays and Saturdays of Lent.

    All days of Lent but Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and 1st Class Feasts: Traditional Catholics will still fast and partially abtain from meat on these days. By partial abstinence, a person is allowed to eat meat only at the major meal.

    All Fridays of the Year: All Catholics must abstain from meat all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent (Can. 1250 & Can. 1251). However, Catholics can do another form of penance on the Fridays of the year instead of abstaining. Fridays in Lent, though, are mandatory abstinence and another act of penance does not void the necessity to abstain from meat and meat products. Traditional Catholics will always abstain on each Friday of the year, though. Above all, some form of penance is required. Failure to perform penance is sinful.

    Pre-Vatican II Fasting: For information on fasting before Vatican II, see Fish Eaters. It is always a good, pious practice to voluntarily fast and abstain on days that used to be required for fasting and abstaining like Holy Saturday, Christmas Eve, and the Vigil of Pentecost. Also, fasting and abstinence were required on Rogation Days and Ember Days.

    Hope this helps.

  15. Daniel K. says:

    BTW, Fr. Z, I looked up those references to canon law. Apparently abstinence is in force for ALL Fridays of the year. More people should know this!

  16. Cortney says:

    Thank you Daniel, your post was very helpful!

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