Fasting, Prayer, Charity for the Gift of Peace

Author: Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.


Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.

"Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning" (Jl 2,12)

On Friday morning, 14 December 2001, on the special day of fasting and prayer that coincided with the end of Ramadan, Fr Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., preached the following exhortation on fasting. Since he makes the case for the discipline of fasting at all times, his sermon retains its value as a model of how modern Christians should think about fasting. Here is a translation of the sermon he gave in Italian in the Chapel Redemptoris Mater.

1. Fasting as an event

The Gospel refers to the following episode:

"John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came [to Jesus] and said to him, 'Why do John's disciples fast, but your disciples do not fast?' When Jesus heard it, he said to them, 'Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast"' (Mk 2,18-22).

In our day, the question in the Gospel could be put differently: "Why do the disciples of Buddha and Mohammed fast but your disciples do not?". Nor would we be able to take refuge behind the answer that Jesus gives in the Gospel, because the Bridegroom has now been "taken from us" (even if, in another sense, we know that he is always present among his own). (Indeed this was to be the reason for the introduction of fasting into Christian legislation in the 2nd century. The first canonical fast, from which all the other types of fasting developed, took place during the days immediately before Easter, and was justified by the explanation: "for in those days the Bridegroom was taken from us": cf. Tertullian, On fasting 2,2). This day of fasting can help us to rediscover the spirit of this practice and to restore it to its rightful place in the authentic spirit of the Bible, without needing to borrow models foreign to Christianity and without forgetting that today many Christians practice fasting "in secret", as Jesus recommended.

We find two kinds of fasting in the Bible: the ascetic fast and the prophetic fast, fasting as a rite and fasting as an event. Ritual fasting is the fast prescribed by law or by tradition, observed by everyone at the same time and in the same way. A once only prophetic fast is prescribed as the response to a precise invitation from God through the prophets, in circumstances of special gravity or need.

Scripture is sparing in its mention of the ritual fast. The only fast prescribed as obligatory by Mosaic law was the fast on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (Lv 16,29). The later tradition added several extra fasts to commemorate sorrowful events in the history of the people of Israel (cf. Zec 7,3-5; 8,19). In Christ's time, people fasted regularly twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, and it was on the occasion of one of these extra fastdays that the Gospel event of Jesus and John's disciples took place.

However, the prophetic fast or fast as an event has greater prominence in the Bible. Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before receiving the tables of the law (Ex 34,28), Elijah fasted before meeting God on Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19,8), and Jesus, before beginning his ministry. The King of Nineveh orders such a fast in response to Jonah's preaching (Jon 3,7ff .).

But the most typical example of this fast is the one Joel announces, that the Church has us listen to every year at the beginning of Lent:

"Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber" (Jl 2,15-16).

The initiative of the Pope in announcing this day of fasting for all the Catholic world makes us relive this prophetic practice.

2. A time of return

We must therefore try to uncover the spirit of this fast-event. It is expressed in the words that introduce the oracle of Joel: "'Yet even now', says the Lord, 'return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments'. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil" (Jl 2,12-14).

This type of fast is intended as a community expression of the desire for conversion. Even some non-believers have responded to the Pope's appeal and will fast on this day. They espouse the humanitarian reasons, and this is already all to the good. It is a response to the appeal that the Church, more and more frequently, is extending to "people of good will" beyond her boundaries. However, this would not be enough for us believers, indeed, it would be a total waste of the opportunity.

As in the times of Joel and Jonah, the call today is for repentance, for the admission of being in the wrong, for a collective "return" to God. Moreover, this is the fundamental meaning of the word "conversion" (shub), that in Hebrew means precisely retracing one's footsteps, entering once again into the covenant that was violated by sin. In Jeremiah we read a sort of short poem on conversion as return that is coloured by images taken from nature:

"Thus says the Lord: When men fall, do they not rise again? If one turns away, does he not return? Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?They hold fast to deceit, they refuse to return.... No man repents of his wickedness, saying, 'What have I done?' Every one turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows her times; and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming; but my people know not the ordinance of the Lord" (Jer 8,4-7).

If the very essence of sin is "aversion to God", turning one's back on God (cf. Jer 2,27), turning to human creatures or withdrawal into the self, the way back to him must of course take the form of a return.

But what does this word represent for a society like ours which, on hearing mention of a "return" jumps to the conclusion that there is an intention to make it forgo its conquests, to take away its freedom and take it back to the Middle Ages? Our society has disposed of religion as a phenomenon of the past, which today has been replacedby technology. In an issue of the magazine MicroMega publishedduring the Jubilee Year that focused on the problem of God, a well-known intellectual wrote: "Religion willdie out. This is neither a wish nor a prophecy. It is already an event that ishappening.... After ourgeneration and perhaps after our children's children, there will no longer be anyone who considers that the need to give a meaning to life is really a basic problem.... Technology has brought religion to its twilight" (U. Galimberti, Nessun dio ci può salvare, in MicroMega 2,2000, pp. 187f.).

Then all of a sudden, we realize that religion is certainly not finished, that it is still a primary force; and that, like nuclear energy, it can be either supremely beneficial or supremely destructive. ("Corruptio optimi pessima", the ancients used to say: the best thing, if corrupted, becomes the worst). Religion was held to be a "superstructure" of the economic sector, and lo and behold, it is shown on the contrary to be something that cannot be reduced to this: it is a factor of coherence, for better or worse, that is even stronger than the idea of class.

In last month's issue of the monthly magazine Jesus, the Catholic writer Ferruccio Parazzoli noted that when confronted by these facts, Western man hurried to a bookshop in search of books—the Qur'ān or something else—that would help him understand who the people were who, tragically or peacefully, he suddenly found facing him: how they educated their soul, and what they believed in. However, to do this he realized that he also needed to know his own soul, to know what we believe in. Hence the surprise: we no longer have a soul; the opulent West has lost its Christian soul, it thinks it can do without it. Speaking of souls in a technological world would have the same effect as Paul had when he spoke of the resurrection to the learned Athenians. We find our own civilization is as idolatrous (F. Parazzoli, in "Jesus", November 2001, p. 9).

If this is the case, the appeal for repentance that must reach our world—of course, with respect and love—is the same as Elijah's to the people of Israel when they abandoned the religion of their ancestors for idols:

"How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him" (I Kgs 18,21).

In Jesus' version: "No one can serve two masters" (cf. Mt 6,24). Today the idols no longer have proper names like Baal Astarte, but ordinary ones: money, luxury, sex; nonetheless they are substantially the same. In Christian countries, the call to return to God must take a direction quite different from that of the"holy war", the Muslim Jihad: it must be a war within the heart, not outside the person; an internal struggle, a conversion and not an aggression. This is the only idea of holy war that is compatible with the spirit of the Gospel.

In inviting our contemporaries to return to God, we must make use of a conviction that many of them hold in common. The road they have taken leads nowhere; it does not lead to life, but to death. A word of God in Ezechiel seems to have been written for all who, on opposite sides of Western nihilism or suicidal terrorism, flirt with death and emptiness: "Why do you want to die, O house of Israel?" (Ez 18,31). Why should there be this "death-wish" as the Pope calls it in his Message for the World Day of Peace? (Message for World Day of Peace 2002,n. 4; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 19/26 December 2001, p. 10).

At this moment, however, we are not here to worry about others or society around us, but ourselves. The direct oracle of Joel calls into question pastors and ministers of the people:

"Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say 'Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?"' (Jl 2,17).

Two things are asked of the priests: conversion and intercession. Together with others they are called to conversion, and, on behalf of others, to intercession. Let us accept the invitation as though it were addressed directly to us, at this precise moment in history, and meditate briefly on two things: first, on our conversion, and then on our duty to intercede.

The return to God and conversion, like judgement, must begin in the house of God (cf. I Pt 4,17). There would be no movement of repentance, no reawakening of faith if it does not begin with us, if we are not the first to make a move.

But what does the appeal addressed to us "to return" mean? A return from where? Repentance for what? To find this out we need to ask ourselves a few questions in the form of an examination of conscience. What in fact does God represent in my life? Does he truly occupy the first place in my thoughts, desires, conversations? We know how easy it is to set up idols even in the service of God and of the Church: work, a career, prestige, leisure.... I would not dare to ask these questions aloud if they had not first been addressed to me, in another form, in my examination of conscience: Jesus could say: "I do not seek my own glory" (Jn 8,50): can you say the same? Jesus said: "Zeal for your house consumes me" (Jn 2,17): can you say the same?

3. Fruit worthy of conversion

To admit the need for conversion is already an extraordinary grace and the decisive step. But it is not enough. It must be followed by concrete acts that indicate the move from inclination to desire. In the Gospel last Sunday (second Sunday of Advent), we heard John the Baptist saying to the Pharisees and Sadduccees: "Bear fruit that befits repentance" (Mt 3,8).

One particular "fruit of conversion" is proposed to us today: fasting. In the "Liturgical-Pastoral Guidelines" issued for the occasion, the fast can take three forms: "eating only one meal, or taking only bread and water, or waiting until sundown before eating" (Liturgical -Pastoral Guidelines on the Fast and Prayer for Peace, 1Dec. 2001, n. 1.2.2, in L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 2 January 2002, p. 6).

However, it is obvious that the Holy Father does not intend it all to end with this day. The prophetic fast or fast as an event must serve to reintroduce the ascetic fast as a constant dimension of Christian life, together with prayer and charity, and indeed it is combined precisely with prayer and charity.

It is true that fasting can easily be subject to various kinds of false imitations, but the Bible also indicates how to protect it. The Biblical attitude to fasting is always a "yes, but", of approval, yet of critical reserve. "Is such the fast that I choose?", asks the Lord in Isaiah, and he goes on to list what must accompany fasting if it is to be pleasing in his eyes: "loosen the bonds of wickedness, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free ..." (cf. Is 58,5-7). Jesus criticizes fasting done to be seen (Mt 6,16-18), or fasting to seize merit in God's eyes: "I fast twice a week" (Lk 18,12).

Today we are acutely sensitive to the reasons for the "but" of the critical reserve. We are convinced that one of our priorities is to "break bread with the hungry and clothe the naked". We are rightly ashamed of calling what we do a "fast" when what, to us, is the peak of austerity—eating bread and water—would already be an extraordinary luxury for millions, especially since our own bread is fresh and our water clean.

Instead, what we must rediscover are the reasons for our "yes", for "usefulness of fasting". St Augustine has written a small treatise with this title "On the usefulness of fasting", and it responds to some of our modern objections:

"Fasting must not seem to you of little importance or superfluous. Those who fast, in accordance with the Church's customs, should not think to themselves: What is the point of fasting? You shorten your life, you bring about something negative. Can God want you to torment yourself? It would be cruel if he took pleasure in your suffering.... But you should respond to the tempter in this way: 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..." (cf. St Augustine, Sermo 400De utilitate ieiunii, 3,3 [PL 40, 708]).

The Catechism of the CatholicChurch saysthat fasting and abstinence "prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart" (n. 2043). A Lenten preface praises fasting in this way: "Through our observance of Lent you conquer our passions, elevate our spirit, you infuse strength in us and offer us a reward". Fasting is above all a sign of human solidarity and Christian charity because it leads men and women to choose freely, and thus with redemptive love, what for millions of people is obligatory.

One should not reduce all Christian ascesis to work and the acceptance of the difficulties inherent in life. This is necessary, but it is not an effective sign of an attitude of spiritual poverty, of our refusing to rely only on our bodily strength, or of humility before God. On the contrary, all these things are well expressed by fasting (cf. Fr Deseille, in Dict. Spirit., 8, coll 1173f.). Fasting is important also as a "sign" of what it symbolizes, not only for what one deprives oneself of. (This also appears clearly in the fasts of our Muslim brothers and sisters who today end their Ramadan fast, which is primarily a public sign of "submission" to God). To think otherwise would mean lapsing into a false spiritualism that neglects the meaning of the human composite and our need for physical attitudes to awaken and sustain the interior life of the spirit (P.-R. Régamey, in AA.VV. Redécouverte du jeune,Paris 1959, pp. 137ff.).

4. Private fasting

However, we must not delude ourselves: in fasting too, there is no turning back. We must invent new forms of ascetical fasting that correspond to contemporary life, so different from what it was 20 or 10 centuries ago. The classic fast of food has become ambiguous in our society. In antiquity there was only fasting for religious reasons; today there is a political and social form of fasting (the hunger strike), fasting for health or ideological reasons (vegetarians), a pathological form of fasting (anorexia), and an aesthetic fast for the purpose of slimming down.

The most necessary and important form of fasting today is called sobriety. Voluntarily depriving oneself of small or great luxuries, of what is superfluous or useless, this is communion with Christ's Passion, it is solidarity with the poverty of so many.

It is also a way of protesting against the consumer mentality. In a world that has made the acquisition of superfluous and useless commodities an aim of its activities, to give up the superfluous, to know how to do without something, to keep from always seeking the easiest solution, from choosing what is easier and more comfortable, in short, to live soberly is more effective than imposing artificial penance on oneself. Above all, it is only fair to the generations that will follow our own, that they may not be reduced to living on the ashes of what we have consumed and wasted. It has an ecological value, of respect for creation.

Today it has become popular to "personalize" everything; the letters we write, the clothes we wear.... Even fasts must be personalized, that is, fasts must be tailored to the needs of the person who practises them. A hymn of the Liturgy of the Hours in Lent gives us an incentive to do so.

Utamur ergo parcius     Let us use sparingly
Verbis cibis et potibus,   words, food and drink,
Somno, iocis et arctius   sleep and amusements
Perstemus in custodia.   May we be more alert in
                                       the custody of our senses.

Thus there is not only fasting from food and drink; there is a fast from words, from amusements, from shows, and each person must discover the one thing that God is asking of him at a certain time in life. Among other things, less obvious fasting is less prone to being ruined by vanity and pride because no one except God can see it.

For some people, the fast they need most might be the fast from words. The Apostle writes: "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear" (Eph 4,29).

Words are harmful if they do not speak well of a brother or sister (cf. Jas 4,11), stir up trouble, have a tendency to put our own deeds in a good light and those of others in bad light, are ironic or sarcastic. It is not difficult to learn to distinguish harmful words from good ones. We need to think about their direction, where they will end. They can tend to glorify us or give glory to God and our brethren. They can serve to justify, and arouse sympathy for me, exalt my "ego" or that of my neighbour.

For others, more important than the fast of words, is the fastof thoughts. Toexplain what I mean I will borrow the words of an anonymous Carthusian monk of our day:

"Observe the course of your thoughts for a single day: you will be surprised at the frequency and liveliness of your inner criticism [of the people around you] with imaginary conversation partners, besides the people who are close to you. What is normally their source? It is this: dissatisfaction with superiors who are unsympathetic, have no respect for us, do not understand us. The superiors are severe, unfair, too ungenerous with us or with others whom they oppress. We are dissatisfied with our brothers or sisters, whom we feel lack understanding, are obstinate, too hasty, bunglers or abusive.... Then in our minds we set up a court, of which we are procurator, president, judge and jury; rarely a lawyer, except for our defence. Wrongs are revealed; reasons considered: we defend and justify ourselves, condemning the one who is absent. Perhaps we even work out plans for revenge or vindictive plots.... At the root, these are the tremors of self love, hasty or rash judgements or impulsive agitation that end with the loss of inner peace" (AMonk, Le porte del silenzio. Direttorio spirituale, Milan 1986, p. 17).

Some people spend hours and hours chewing certain roots which they turn over and over in their mouths. When we indulge in thoughts of this kind, we resemble them, except that the root that we are sucking on is a poisonous one.... We must replace the resentful thoughts prompted by self-love with thoughts of pardon. Forgiveness has a therapeutic value: it heals those who offer it and those who receive it.

Lastly, the fast of images is indispensable for everyone. We are living in a culture of images: photomagazines, cinema, television, internet.... No food, says Scripture, is impure in itself; many images are. They are the privileged vehicle of the anti-Gospel: sensuality, violence, immorality. They are the special troops of the god Mammon. The slogan "man is what he eats" is attributed to Feuerbach. Today we should say: "man is what he looks at". The image has an incredible power to mould and to condition the inner world of those who look at it. We are influenced by what we let enter through our eyes.

For a priest, a religious, a preacher, this has now become a question of life or death. "But Father" someone once objected to me: "did not God create the eye to look at all the beautiful things in the world?". "Yes, brother" I answered him; "but God himself who created the eye to look with also created the eyelid to close it. And he knew what he was doing".

5. Intercession

The second thing that priests must do, according to the oracle of Joel—I am serious—is to intercede: "Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, 'Spare your people, O Lord’…". We all remember the Gregorian hymn: "Parce,Domine, parce populo tuo...". It is taken from here; they are Joel's words in the Vulgate version. I think it is especially for this reason that the Holy Father has announced the present day of fasting. In Joel's case, the goal was to ask God to put an end to natural disasters, the invasion of locusts and famine; in our case it is to ask that disasters caused by man—terrorism and war—stop, and for people to rediscover the paths of peace.

In this case, intercession must take the form of a heartfelt, "Grant us, Lord, peace in our days". Last Friday the Missa pro pace by Wojcieck Kilar was performed in the Paul VI Hall, by the choir and orchestra of the National Philharmonic of Warsaw. The most sublime moment was precisely in the final "Dona nobis pacem" (grant us peace), which alone lasted for almost seven minutes.

What does "interceding" mean? It means being united in faith with the risen Christ who lives in an everlasting state of intercession for the world (cf. Rom 8,34, Heb 7,25; 1 Jn 2,1). It means being united with the Spirit who "intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words ... according to the will of God" (cf. Rom 8,26-27).

Scripture highlights the extraordinary power of the prayers of those he has made leaders of his people to influence God, as God himself has disposed. At one point it is said that God would have destroyed his people because of the golden calf, "had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath" (cf. Ps 106,23). In Vespers, for the Common of Pastors, we find this beautiful invocation:

"You have forgiven the sins of your people through the prayers of the holy pastors who interceded like Moses: through their merits, always purify and renew your Church".

Let us not cease to intercede saying: "In any case, nothing ever changes, we have knocked so many times and no doors have been opened to us…". Be careful! Perhaps you knocked at the back door and did not realize that God had opened the front door to you. He is giving you something more important for eternity than you asked for.... One day we will discover that no prayer of intercession has ever gone unheard, when it is made with faith and humility, without our needing to see if there has been a response. Let this be the case for the prayer for peace that the entire Church raises to God today, supported by our fast....  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 January 2002, page 3

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069