Medieval Lenten penances



Compared to the Early Church, modern Catholics have no notion of penance and what it entails. By relaxing the need for penanace, the Church seems to leave Our Lord to suffer alone, when He desires that we partake in his passion.

Read the following excerpt but I strongly suggest you read the entire article here:

Today’s Latin Catholics would be well-served to review the norms of early Christians as they prepared for Easter.

The Lenten fast for Latin Catholics living in the years of the third millennium of Christianity often means swapping out the lunchtime burger for a Filet-o-Fish, and attending Stations of the Cross sporadically. But the Church has, up to the time of major reforms in the 1960s, encouraged its children to not do the bare minimum, but to immerse themselves in the spirit of Lenten penance.

The requirements and practices during the first millennium after Our Lord were extraordinarily stringent by today’s terms, having been relaxed bit by bit, until they are almost nonexistent today. Archbishop Lefebvre noted this in a letter written to faithful in 1982:

The faithful who have a true spirit of faith and who profoundly understand the motives of the Church…will wholeheartedly accomplish not only the light prescriptions of today but, entering into the spirit of Our Lord and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, will endeavor to make reparation for the sins which they have committed and for the sins of their family, their neighbors, friends and fellow citizens.”
Today, only the Eastern Christian churches (many of which are not in communion with Rome) practice austerity during Lent, albeit unevenly. For instance, meat, fish, dairy, and oil are generally prohibited during the Lenten season, though there are few restrictions on the amount of Lenten-approved food that may be consumed. Moreover, certain fasting disciplines are subject to regional practice and cultural variations with local priests and bishops having more direct say in offering dispensations for those entrusted to their care.

Black Fasts and Watery Beer
We can learn much from our Latin ancestors’ observance of the Lenten Quadragesima and perhaps follow their example; if not entirely in practice, at least in spirit, as recommended by the Archbishop. In a recent post on his site, Dr. Taylor Marshall, a former Episcopalian priest who is now Catholic, collected the rules for Lenten penance as described by St. Thomas Aquinas:

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were “black fasts.” This means no food at all.
Other days of Lent: no food until 3pm, the hour of Our Lord’s death. Water was allowed, and as was the case for the time due to sanitary concerns, watered-down beer and wine. After the advent of tea and coffee, these beverages were permitted.
No animal meats or fats.
No eggs.
No dairy products (lacticinia) – that is, eggs, milk, cheese, cream, butter, etc.
Sundays were days of less liturgical discipline, but the fasting rules above remained.


2 thoughts on “Medieval Lenten penances

  1. I Can Fly

    I so totally agree. The church continually moves towards quantity vs quality. I even so it in my parents. Parents who ensured I was a good Catholic Boy. Now it is I who wonder where have all the Catholics gone!


  2. Tim McGee

    Great post. Thanks. It is always good to consider how we live the virtues of praying, fasting, and almsgiving, particularly in the season of Lent. I think if we approach fasting and Lenten practices with our need for humility and a hopeful change of hearts, we succeed. If, however, we hold onto practices because they are hard and somewhere we might learn a lesson, then we lose more hope than we gain. To be sure, we do not want to water down our faith. But we have to be careful, and in many ways the Church has been careful, not to exercise the people with adherence to austerity and rules such as did the Pharisees. May all we do be done in love (1 COR 16:14). That’s the measure Jesus set for us.



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