105: What are Penance and Abstinence?

Published by S.D. Cason Admin on What is Lent? - Free Catholic Faith & Practices Course



The rules for penance and abstinence vary from country to country, but this course focuses on the Latin-Rite practices in the United States. The most recent statement on penance and abstinence in the US is the "Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence" from 1966, which emphasizes the importance of penance in the Catholic faith. Penance allows believers to seek forgiveness for their sins and strive towards a life of righteousness, strengthening their relationship with God in the process.

The document notes that the need for conversion and salvation is unchanging, and that Christians have always observed seasons and days of penance. The Christian penitential seasons, such as Advent and Lent, have their roots in Hebrew tradition and have been observed since the first centuries after Christ's resurrection. By observing these seasons and days of penance, Christians follow the example of Jesus, who fasted and prayed for forty days in the desert.

It is important to note that the rules for penance and abstinence vary from country to country, and it is essential to check the website of your bishop's conference or local bishop's website for specific guidelines. In the United States, the rules for penance and abstinence are outlined in the Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence.

The main rule of fasting for Latin rite Catholics in the U.S. is this:

When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards. Fasting is only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (USCCB)Advent

Changes in Christmas customs have led to a decrease in the importance of the Advent season as a time for penitential preparation. The holiday mood of Christmas is now anticipated during Advent, diminishing its significance. Catholics have tried to maintain the Advent spirit by resisting the move away from traditional practices. However, relying on a new emphasis on liturgy may better foster a deeper understanding of Advent as a season of preparation for the Nativity.

The bishops continue by stating that, "For these reasons, we, the shepherds of souls of this conference, call upon Catholics to make the Advent season, beginning with 1966, a time of meditation on the lessons taught by the liturgy and of increased participation in the liturgical rites by which the Advent mysteries are exemplified and their sanctifying effect is accomplished."

Catholics should practice liturgical observances with fervor and fidelity during Advent in their homes, churches, schools, retreats, and other religious houses, where the spiritual purpose of Advent will be clearly perceived. In short, the bishops of the United States don't have any specific penance concerning Advent, but they do wish for Catholics to attend more masses and to meditate on the readings of the liturgy during Advent.


The Lenten season is a time for special penitential observance, according to the Catholic Church. The season begins with Ash Wednesday, which has a powerful lesson. Bishops encourage the development of Lenten liturgy and hope that the observance of Lent as the principal season of penance will be intensified. Accordingly, the document states in paragraphs 12 and 13 that quote: Wherefore, we ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire Lenten Season a period of special penitential observance. Following the instructions of the Holy See, we declare that the obligation both to fast and to abstain from meat, an obligation observed under a more strict formality by our fathers in the faith, still binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

No Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself from so hallowed an obligation on the Wednesday which solemnly opens the Lenten season and on that Friday called "Good" because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul's Constitution Poenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice. Unquote. Therefore, from this document it is clear. Although meat eating on Fridays which are not during Lent is allowed. Every Friday during Lent is, at this time, strictly meatless.

On the other hand, certain feasts during Lent may be exempt from the Lenten spirit of penance according to local diocesan regulations. If you are unsure, check with your bishop.

Furthermore, this bishops suggest participation in daily Mass, self-imposed fasting, spiritual studies, and self-denial as lenten practices. Catholics are also called to show love and imitation of Christ through special solicitude for those in need, including the sick, poor, and underprivileged.

Vigils & Ember Days

Moving on, the bishops acknowledge that Vigils and Ember Days no longer require fasting and abstinence, but a renewed appreciation for the "fast before a feast" tradition is encouraged. While there is no required fast before feast days, the devout are suggested to prepare for church festivals with a day of self-denial, penitential prayer, and fasting to find greater Christian joy in the liturgical calendar.

Fridays Outside of Lent

The United States bishops claim that changing circumstances have made some people feel that abstaining from meat on Fridays is not always the most effective way to practice penance. Therefore, the traditional law of abstinence is no longer binding under the penalty of sin. Bishops are encouraging Catholics to prepare for the weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by making every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ. While abstinence from meat is no longer required by law, the Church hopes that people will continue to abstain from meat by choice. The Church encourages people to find other forms of penitential witness and suggests ways to participate in good works born of living faith, such as serving the needs of the elderly and lonely, instructing the young in the faith, and participating in community affairs. The hope is that these recommendations will lead to a new birth of loving faith and deeper penitential conversion to become one with Christ and servants of God's people.


So to sum up the entire document and the entire practice of penance and abstinence in the United States, let us make a few points.

1. Fridays outside of Lent are no longer binding as days to abstain from meat.
2. The US Bishops strongly urge Catholics to continue abstaining every Friday.
3. Fridays are obligatory days of abstinence during Lent.
4. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday require both abstinence and fasting.
5. If possible, the fast on Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil (on Holy Saturday night) as the "paschal fast" to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily his Resurrection.
6. Advent does not require any fasting or abstinence, but it is still a penitential season, and the US bishops encourage Catholics to attend daily mass and meditate on the Advent liturgy.
7. According to Canon 1252, the age of fasting is from the completion of the eighteenth year to the beginning of the sixtieth.
8. Lastly, according to Canon 919: A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.

In conclusion, observing penance and abstinence in the Catholic faith not only allows Catholics to seek forgiveness for their sins but also helps them strive towards a life of righteousness and strengthen their relationship with God. It serves as a form of self-discipline and can have a positive impact on the community.


Fast & Abstinence
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence. F…
Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence
A Statement Issued by the National Conference ofCatholic Bishops November 18, 1966 “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in…
Code of Canon Law - Book IV - Function of the Church (Cann. 1244-1253)
Code of Canon Law - Book IV - Function of the Church (Cann. 1244-1253)