The Popes and the Lenten Fast: A Soul Training Exercise

By Amedeo Lomonaco

There are three key elements of the Lenten journey that begins each year with Ash Wednesday: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Fasting, in particular, should not be understood only in its formal dimension. It has real significance, as Pope Francis repeatedly reminds us, if one follows the example of the Good Samaritan. It has value if one adopts a sober lifestyle, if one lives “a way of life that does not waste, a way of life that does not ‘throw away’.”

What is the fasting the Lord desires?

Lent is a privileged time of fasting and penance. But what kind of fasting does God want from us? Pope Francis answered this question on 16 February 2018 during his morning meditation in the Chapel at the Domus Sanctae Marthae: it is not just a matter of making choices about food, but of a lifestyle where one has the humility and consistency to recognize and correct one’s sins.

Pope Francis explains that the answer comes from Scripture, where we read: “Bow down your head like a rush,” that is, “humble yourself,” and think about your sins. This, Pope Francis emphasizes, is “the fasting that the Lord desires: truth, consistency.”

In his homily during the Ash Wednesday Mass in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on 22 February 2023, the Pope recalls that “Fasting is not a quaint devotion, but a powerful gesture to remind ourselves what truly matters and what is merely ephemeral.”

The value of fasting

At this time of Lent, we can ask ourselves what meaning there is for us Christians “in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance.” In his Message for Lent 2009, Benedict XVI recalls the teachings of Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition:

They teach us “that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it.” For this reason, he adds, “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.”

Benedict goes on to say that, “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.” And turning to pages of the New Testament, he concludes that the true fast is thus directed to eating the ‘true food,’ which is to do the Father’s will.”

What does fasting represent?

Fasting, in the Lenten journey, is therefore not a simple abstinence from food or material food. In fact, it represents “a complex and deep reality,” as John Paul II emphasized on 21 March 1979 addressing young people in St Peter’s Square. Fasting, he said, “is a symbol, a sign, a serious and stimulating call to accept or to make renunciations. What is renunciation? Renunciation of the ‘ego,’ that is, of so many caprices or unhealthy aspirations; renunciation of one’s own defects, of impetuous passion, of unlawful desires.”

Fasting, he continued, “means putting a limit on so many desires, sometimes good ones, in order to have full mastery of oneself, to learn to control one’s own instincts, to train the will in good.”

Finally, he said, fasting means “depriving oneself of something in order to meet the need of one’s brother, becoming, in this way, and exercise of goodness, of charity.”

Which fasting is to be preferred?

Lent is a time of renunciation and penance. But it is also “a time of communion and solidarity,” according to Paul VI in his 1973 Message for Lent, in which he invited the faithful to listen to the exhortations of the prophet Isaiah: “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:  sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”

Such exhortations, notes Pope Paul, “echo the anxieties of the people of today,” and thus, “each individual truly shares in the sufferings and misery of all.”

His considerations reflected those of John XXIII. In his 1963 radio message on the occasion of the beginning of Lent, Pope John said the Church “does not lead her children to a simple exercise of exterior practices, but to a serious commitment of love and generosity for the good of the brothers and sisters, in the light of the ancient teaching of the prophets.”

Like his predecessor, Pope John quotes from the book of Isaiah: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless, poor into your house… Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord will accompany you” (Is 58:6-8).