Fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church historically observes the disciplines of fasting and abstinence at various times each year. For Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one's intake of food, while abstinence refers to refraining from meat (or another type of food). The Catholic Church teaches that all people are obliged by God to perform some penance for their sins, and that these acts of penance are both personal and corporeal. The purpose of fasting is spiritual focus, self-discipline, imitation of Christ, and performing penance. Bodily fasting is meaningless unless it is joined with a spiritual fast from sin. St. Basil gives the following exhortation regarding fasting:
"Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting."
Contemporary Vatican legislation, which is followed by Catholics of the Latin Rite (who comprise most Catholics) is rooted in the 1966 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, and codified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (in Canons 1249–1253). According to Paenitemini and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, both abstinence and fasting are required of Catholics who are not exempted for various reasons. All Fridays of the year except Solemnities are bound by the law of abstinence, while the law of fasting binds all Catholics who are aged between eighteen and sixty on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Nevertheless, both Paenitemini and the 1983 Code of Canon Law permitted the Episcopal Conferences to propose adjustments of the laws on fasting and abstinence for their home territories, and most have done so. For example, in some countries, the Bishops' Conferences have obtained from Rome the substitution of pious or charitable acts for abstinence from meat on all Fridays of the year (including Fridays of Lent) except Good Friday. Others continue to abstain from eating meat on Lenten Fridays, but not on Fridays outside of Lent. Still others voluntarily abstain from meat, though fasting may be less stringent on Holy Saturday than on Good Friday.
Members of the Eastern Catholic Churches are obliged to follow the discipline of their own particular church. While some Eastern Catholics try to follow the stricter rules of their Orthodox counterparts, the actual canonical obligations of Eastern Catholics to fast and abstain are usually much more lenient than those of the Orthodox.
The Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans reconciled to the Catholic Church follow the discipline of the Latin Rite (of which they are a part) including the norms established by the Council of Catholic Bishops in whose territories they are erected and of which their Ordinaries are members. Thus in England the norm is abstinence on all Fridays of the year. The Bishop in the United States has emphasized the statements in the USCCB norms "Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year," and "we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat." The Ember Days have been re-established in the Calendar of the Ordinariates, and as long as a Solemnity does not take precedence, the Ember Fridays in September and Advent are days of obligatory abstinence. Obligatory abstinence on Ember Friday in Lent is included in the universal Lenten discipline, and abstinence on Ember Friday on Whitsuntide is not required, as all days of the Octave of Pentecost are Solemnities.
Rules relating to fasting pertain to the quantity of food allowed on days of fasting, while those regulating abstinence refer to the quality or type of food. The Christian tradition of fasts and abstinence developed from Old Testament practices, and were an integral part of the early church community. Louis Duchesne observed that Monday and Thursday were days of fasting among pious Jews. Early Christians practiced regular weekly fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays.
There has always been a close connection between fasting and almsgiving; the money saved on food should be given to the poor.
The habit of fasting before Easter developed gradually, and with considerable diversity of practice regarding duration. As late as the latter part of the second century there were differing opinions not only regarding the manner of the paschal fast, but also the proper time for keeping Easter. In 331, St. Athanasius enjoined upon his flock a period of forty days of fasting preliminary to, but not inclusive of, the stricter fast of Holy Week, and in 339, after having traveled to Rome and over the greater part of Europe, wrote in the strongest terms to urge this observance upon the people of Alexandria as one that was universally practiced, "to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days".
In the time of Gregory the Great (590–604), there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six days each, making thirty-six fast days in all, which St. Gregory, who is followed therein by many medieval writers, describes as the spiritual tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of three hundred and sixty-five. At a later date the wish to realize the exact number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent on Ash Wednesday.
The ordinary rule on fasting days was to take but one meal a day and that only in the evening; white meat and, in the early centuries, wine were entirely forbidden.
These days were at one time observed with a Black Fast of strictly no more than one meal, without meat, dairy, oil, or wine. This Lenten fast was traditionally broken at sunset. In the 10th century, the custom of taking the only meal of the day at three o'clock was introduced. In the 14th century, the meal was allowed at mid-day, and soon the practice of an evening collation (snack) became common. A morning collation was introduced in the early 19th century.
In the early 20th century, Church law prescribed fasting throughout Lent, with abstinence only on Friday and Saturday. Some countries received dispensations: Rome in 1918 allowed the bishops of Ireland to transfer the Saturday obligation to Wednesday; in the United States, abstinence was not required on Saturday. The other weekdays were simply days of "fasting without abstinence." A similar practice (common in the United States) was called "partial abstinence", which allowed meat only once during the day at the main meal. (There is nothing in current Catholic Canon Law which corresponds to "partial abstinence".) The countries of the former Spanish empire also had their own extensive dispensations from the Roman rules of fasting and abstinence, based on the "Crusader privileges" of the Spanish dominions as codified in the Bull of the Crusade. In some European colonies, the obligation to fast and abstain differed by race, with natives often having more lenient rules than Europeans or mestizos.
While the rules of abstinence generally only allow seafood, there are a few exceptions. In parts of South America, especially in Venezuela, capybara meat is popular during Lent and Holy Week; in response to a question posed by French settlers in Quebec in the 17th century, beaver was classified as an exception; and the Archbishop of New Orleans said that "alligator is considered in the fish family" in 2010. The legal basis for the classification of beaver as fish probably rests with the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, which bases animal classification as much on habit as anatomy.
Besides Lent, there were other penitential times customarily accompanied by fasting or abstinence. These included Advent, the Ember Days, the Rogation Days, Fridays throughout the year, and vigils of important feast days.
Advent is considered a time of special self-examination, humility, and spiritual preparation in anticipation of the birth of Christ. Fridays and Saturdays in Advent were days of abstinence, and until early in the 20th century, the Fridays of Advent were also days of fasting.
The vigils observed included the Saturday before Pentecost, October 31 (the vigil of All Saints), December 24 (Christmas Eve), December 7 (the vigil of the Immaculate Conception) and August 14 (the vigil of the Assumption). These vigils all required fasting; some also required abstinence. If any of these fell on a Sunday, the vigil, but not the obligation of fasting, was moved to the Saturday before. (Some other liturgical days were also known as vigils but neither fasting nor abstinence was required, particularly the vigils of feasts of the Apostles and the Vigil of the Epiphany.) By 1959 in the United States, the fast for the vigil of Christmas was moved to December 23.
Ember days occurred four times a year. The Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of the ember week were days of fast and abstinence, though the Wednesday and Saturday were often only days of partial abstinence. In addition, Roman Catholics were required to abstain from meat (but not fast) on all other Fridays, unless the Friday coincided with a holy day of obligation.
The former regulations on abstinence obliged Roman Catholics starting as young as age seven, but there were many exceptions. Large classes of people were considered exempt from fasting and abstinence, not only the sick and those with physically demanding jobs, but also people traveling and students. The regulations were adapted to each nation, and so in most dioceses in America abstinence from meat was not required on the Friday after Thanksgiving, to accommodate any meat left over from that US national holiday.
On the eve of Vatican II, fasting and abstinence requirements in numerous Catholic countries were already greatly relaxed compared to the beginning of the 20th century, with fasting often reduced to just four days of the year (Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, the vigil of Christmas or the day before, and the vigil either of the Immaculate Conception or of the Assumption).
Sundays of Lent
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Some controversy has arisen over whether Catholics should continue to fast and abstain from the things they voluntarily gave up for Lent on the Sundays of Lent. Questions include whether the “forty days” of Lent are limited to weekdays or whether they include Sundays, and if every Sunday is like Easter.
The Latin word for Lent is Quadragesima which literally means "forty". The term imitates many biblical images of fasting for forty days (e.g. Exodus 24:18; Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2). While all of this is true, Lenten and Easter practices varied in the East and the West as both traditions developed over time. The various Lenten fasts which developed did not always last forty days.
In the fourth century, the council of Nicaea referred to Lent as “the forty” before the Paschal feast. Although it is not entirely clear, the grammar of this phrase could be read to imply that one should prepare for forty days for the coming of Easter. One thing that is clear from the council of Nicaea is the fact that whatever the length of this penance, it did not include Sundays, since this council forbade even kneeling on Sunday. Sundays were treated differently by the early Christians and penitential kneeling on Sundays was strictly forbidden. This early discipline later evolved in the Western Church as our understanding of various gestures in worship shifted. Eventually in the Western tradition kneeling became a sign of reverence not of penance.
In the history of the development of Lenten traditions in the western Church there were actually two different focuses. One was on the Baptismal liturgy of catechumens who were journeying towards the Easter Vigil to be baptized and received in to the Church. The second tradition involved a rite for reconciling adult penitents. Initially these penitents were those who were excommunicated and were in the process of being reconciled to the Church. In 1091 AD, Pope Urban II changed this and required all the faithful to receive ashes in what became Ash Wednesday. Over time the penitential aspect alone became the focus of Lent.
The Second Vatican council wished to restore the original double focus on baptism and penance. The fathers note, “The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis.” (Sacrosanctum concilium 109).
What are the implications for the Sundays in Lent? Can we solve this with Math? According to the modern General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (2011), “The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive.” If you get a calendar out you would see that this year there are 20 days of Lent in February but only 24 days (23.5?) of Lent in March for a total of 44 days. There are 6 Sundays in Lent. Using these numbers you would not achieve the ‘biblical number’ forty by subtracting the six Sundays that occur within Lenten session. Does this prove that we should fast and abstain on Sundays? Or perhaps two of the Sundays?
Several points need to be noted. First the definition of Lent as excluding half of Holy Thursday, the whole of Good Friday and Holy Saturday only came about in 1969. These three days are now called the Triduum and are no longer considered part of the session of Lent. In other words, the numbers did actually work until this recent change. But now is the number ‘forty,’ merely figurative?
Notice that even in the current definition of Lent, Easter waits for us to complete the Triduum, and there are two more days of serious penance in the Triduum which still brings the total to forty days of penance excluding Sundays. The penitential disciple of Lent is still forty days even if the season of Lent is now shorten by the Triduum.
We must not confuse the season on Lent with the penitential disciple of Lent. The tradition of the Church did not require equal penances on each day of Lent, and no penance was required on Sunday.
Someone might say that the Sundays of Lent are part of the season of Lent and, therefore, must continue to have a penitential meaning. This is certainly partly true. We do worship in a more reserved and sober manner on the Sundays of Lent. But the fact remains that the penitential discipline of Lent always excluded these Sundays. We might also point out that the lectionary readings of the Sundays of Lent all focus on the catechumenal journey towards the Easter Vigil and not exclusively on penance.
As was pointed out above, Lenten traditions have developed over time. One consistent feature has been that the penitential discipline of Lent excluded Sundays. This point is especially evident in the writings of St. Augustine.
In St. Augustine's Letter 36, he refutes a rigorist who insists that Christians should fast on the Sabbath (Saturday). This might initially sound tangential but it leads Augustine to our question. Augustine, by the way, argues that we are free to fast or not fast on the Sabbath, and as Christians we are not bound by the Jewish Sabbath keeping regulations.
Augustine also tells us that in his time Christians regularly fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year and not just in Lent (36.30) and that some Churches fasted as well on the Sabbath. By comparison, fasting on the Lord's Day (Sunday) “would be a cause of no small scandal to the Church” (36.2, cf. 36.10, 29). He notes, “For in these questions on which the divine scripture has determined nothing certain, the custom of the people of God or the practices of our ancestors are to be taken as law” (36.2). He makes it clear that not fasting on the Lord's Day was the standard practice for the Church in Rome, in Africa and in Millan. He also points out that fasting or abstaining on the Lord's Day was a practice of the followers of the heresy of the Manichees (36.27) and Priscillianist (36.28) which the Church universally rejected.
Fasting on the Lord's Day is a ‘scandal’ and ‘abominable’ (36.27) though Augustine allows one exception, “unless perhaps someone might be able to extend a fast beyond a week without taking any meal in order to approximate a fast of forty days” (36.27). He does not seem to have in mind someone who is merely, for example, not eating meat for forty days, but an epic fast of biblical proportions. (e.g. “without taking any meal”).
Again the point is that the penitential discipline of Lent always excluded Sundays and further St. Augustine says that fasting on Sundays is a scandal and abominable.
Finally someone might add one more layer to this discussion. The person who is asking about drinking their latte on Sundays in Lent, is really taking about their own self-imposed private devotion. It is interesting to learn about the history of this practice of private devotion.
Prior to Second Vatican Council the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Roman Pontifical and the approved regulations for the United States (Uniform Norms 1951, Modification 1956) required a rigorous scheme of fasting by all the faithful 21- 59-years-old. Abstinence could be complete or partial, and fasting allowed one full meal plus partial meals. All week days of Lent had either a fast or a fast and abstinence attached to them. It is very clear in these documents that we were discussing the weekdays of Lent, excluding Sundays.
During World War II special permission was given to local ordinaries to dispense the faithful from these rigorous daily requirements and this permission was extended again in 1949. In light of these dispensations the Uniform Norms 1951, and Modification 1956 for the US included a paragraph which exhorted the faithful to be generous in performing additional voluntary works of Christian perfection.
It seems the wide spread custom of taking on voluntary penance began in the 1950s. Prior to this people were satisfied fulfilling the demanding norms of Lent. Since these new voluntary acts are not required, it would seem the faithful can do whatever they want, but choosing to do penance on a Sunday is clearly not in the spirit of Catholic Tradition.[tone]
Contemporary legislation is rooted in the 1966 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini. He recommended that fasting be appropriate to the local economic situation, and that all Catholics voluntarily fast and abstain. He also allowed that fasting and abstinence might be substituted with prayer and works of charity, although the norms for doing so were to be set down by the Episcopal Conferences.
Current practice of fast and abstinence is regulated by Canons 1250–1253 of the 1983 code. They specify that all Fridays throughout the year, and the time of Lent are penitential times throughout the entire Church. All adults (those who have attained the 'age of majority', which is 18 years in canon law) are bound by law to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until the beginning of their sixtieth year. All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence on all Fridays unless they are solemnities, and again on Ash Wednesday; but in practice this requirement has been greatly reduced by the Episcopal Conferences because under Canon 1253, it is these Conferences that have the authority to set down the local norms for fasting and abstinence in their territories. (However, the precept to both fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is usually not dispensed from.)
Absent any specification of the nature of "fasting" in the current Canon Law, the traditional definition is obviously applicable here which is that on the days of mandatory fasting, Catholics may eat only one full meal during the day. Additionally, they may eat up to two small meals or snacks, known as "collations". Church requirements on fasting only relate to solid food, not to drink, so Church law does not restrict the amount of water or other beverages – even alcoholic drinks – which may be consumed.
In some Western countries, Catholics have been encouraged to adopt non-dietary forms of abstinence during Lent. For example, in 2009 Monsignor Benito Cocchi, Archbishop of Modena, urged young Catholics to give up text messaging for Lent.
In addition to the fasts mentioned above, Roman Catholics must also observe the Eucharistic Fast, which involves taking nothing but water and medicines into the body for some time before receiving the Eucharist. The earliest recorded regular practice was to eat at home before the Lord's Supper if one was hungry (I Corinthians 11:34). The next known ancient practice was to fast from midnight until Mass that day. As Masses after noon and in the evening became common in the West, this was soon modified to fasting for three hours. The latest Code of Canon Law reduced the Eucharistic Fast to the current one-hour requirement for the Roman Rite. Particular law in some Eastern Catholic Churches also requires a one-hour Eucharistic fast.
The Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference decreed on Friday 4 October 1985 that Fridays throughout the year, including in Lent (other than Good Friday) are not obligatory days of abstinence from meat, provided an alternative form of penance is practised. Although this remains the case to this day, support for the return of obligatory Friday abstinence has been gradually increasing since England and Wales returned to Friday abstinence in 2011, with some Australian bishops expressing interest.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops decrees that the days of fast and abstinence in Canada are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and specifies that Fridays are days of abstinence. This includes all Fridays year round, not just Fridays of Lent. Catholics, however, can substitute special acts of charity or piety on these days.
England and Wales
Current norms for England and Wales, issued by the Bishops' Conference in May 2011, re-introduced the expectation that all Catholics able to do so should abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, effective Friday, September 16, 2011.
On 25 November 2010 the Irish Bishops’ Conference published the resource leaflet Friday Penance. It followed from the March 2010 Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland from Pope Benedict XVI suggesting initiatives to support renewal in the Church in Ireland. He asked that Irish Catholics offer their Friday Penances “for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength,” and that fasting, prayer, reading of Scripture and works of mercy be offered in order to obtain healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland.
The leaflet states that Penance "arises from the Lord’s call to conversion and repentance" and describes that it is an "essential part of all genuine Christian living":
- in memory of the passion and death of the Lord
- as a sharing in Christ's suffering
- as an expression of inner conversion
- as a form of reparation for sin
Friday Penance also explains why penance is important: “Declaring some days throughout the year as days of fast and abstinence (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) is meant to intensify penances of the Christian. Lent is the traditional season for renewal and penance but Catholics also observe each Friday of the year as days of penance. The link between Friday and penance is extremely ancient and is even reflected in the Irish language word for Friday: An Aoine (The Fast).”
The leaflet suggests ways of fulfilling Friday penance such as abstaining from meat or alcohol, visiting the Blessed Sacrament or helping the poor, sick and lonely as well as other suggestions.
One writer has summarized the U.S. rules as follows:
In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has declared that "the age of fasting is from the completion of the eighteenth year to the beginning of the sixtieth." The USCCB also allows the substitution of some other form of penance for abstinence on all of the Fridays of the year, except for those Fridays in Lent. Thus, the rules for fasting and abstinence in the United States are:
- Every person 14 years or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.
- Every person between the age of 18 and 59 (beginning of 60th year) must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
- Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on all other Fridays of the year, unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance for abstinence.
According to the USCCB:
Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs --- all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat. Abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are technically not forbidden. However, moral theologians have traditionally taught that we should abstain from all animal-derived products (except foods such as gelatin, butter, cheese and eggs, which do not have any meat taste). Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.
Because of this, some Catholic parishes in the United States sponsor a fish fry during Lent. In predominantly Roman Catholic areas, restaurants may adjust their menus during Lent by adding seafood items to the menu in an attempt to appeal to Roman Catholics. However, the same USCCB website says that:
While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not considered meat and can be consumed on days of abstinence, indulging in the lavish buffet at your favorite seafood place sort of misses the point. Abstaining from meat and other indulgences during Lent is a penitential practice.
The USCCB also states that:
Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women. In all cases, common sense should prevail, and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.
In 2010, Archbishop of New Orleans Gregory Michael Aymond clarified that alligator is also considered seafood, saying "Yes, the alligator's considered in the fish family, and I agree with you — God has created a magnificent creature that is important to the state of Louisiana, and it is considered seafood." This was in response to a letter from a local alligator wrangler.
To fast customarily means to only eat one meal during the day, and to avoid animal products. Eastern Christians view fasting as one part of repentance and supporting a spiritual change of heart. Eastern Christians observe two major times of fasting, the "Great Fast" before Easter, and "Phillip's Fast" before the Nativity.
During the Great Fast, meat, eggs, dairy products, fish and oil are avoided.
The fast period before Christmas is called "Philip's Fast" because it begins after the feast day of St. Philip. Specific practices vary, but on some days during the week meat, dairy products and (in some countries) oil are avoided, while on other days there is no restriction. During approximately the last week before the Nativity, typically meat, dairy, eggs and oil are avoided on all days, meals are moderate in quantity, and no food is taken between meals.
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- 2018 ORDO for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter: Advent 2017 to Christmastide 2018, Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, ISBN 9781982037147
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- Cléir, Síle de (5 October 2017). Popular Catholicism in 20th-Century Ireland: Locality, Identity and Culture. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 101. ISBN 978-1350020603. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
Catherine Bell outlines the details of fasting and abstinence in a historical context, stating that the Advent fast was usually less severe than that carried out in Lent, which originally involved just one meal a day, not to be eaten until after sunset.
- Guéranger, Prosper; Fromage, Lucien (1912). The Liturgical Year: Lent. New York: Benziger Brothers. pp. 7–8. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
St. Benedict's rule prescribed a great many fasts, over and above the ecclesiastical fast of Lent; but it made this great distinction between the two: that whilst Lent obliged the monks, as well as the rest of the faithful, to abstain from food till sunset, these monastic fasts allowed the repast to be taken at the hour of None.
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- Lacoursière, Jacques (1995). Histoire populaire du Québec: Des origines à 1791 [People's History of Quebec From the beginning to 1791] (in French). Diffusion Dimedia. p. 122. ISBN 978-2894480502. Explains that Bishop François de Laval in the 17th century posed the question to the theologians of the Sorbonne, who ruled in favour of this decision.
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- The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas II. 147:8 provides legal foundation on which theologians argued in favour of beaver being like fish.
- Canon V, Greek text: τῆς τεσσεράκοντῆς, ἵνα πάσῆς, Latin: quadragesimam paschae. In the Greek the word “day’ is likely implied. The construction of ἵνα with a designation of time see Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 476). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. S. B-D-F §382, 1; 393. cf. Pl. Ti. 38c: ἐξ οὖν λόγου καὶ διανοίας θεοῦ τοιαύτης πρὸς χρόνου γένεσιν, ἵνα γεννηθῇ χρόνος, ἥλιος καὶ σελήνη καὶ πέντε ἄλλα ἄστρα, ἐπίκλην ἔχοντα πλανητά, εἰς διορισμὸν καὶ φυλακὴν ἀριθμῶν χρόνου γέγονεν .
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- Mabin, Connie (March 2, 2007). "For Lent, Parishes Lighten Up Fish Fry". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-02-25.
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- Women for Faith & Family – includes texts of Canon law
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