Our observance of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, a day of fast and abstinence for Catholics. At Mass on Ash Wednesday, the imposition of ashes replicates an ancient penitential practice and symbolizes our dependence upon God’s mercy and forgiveness.
During Lent, the baptized are called to renew their baptismal commitment as others prepare to be baptized through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a period of learning and discernment for individuals who have declared their desire to become Catholics.
The three traditional pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The Church asks us to surrender ourselves to prayer and to the reading of Scripture, to fasting and to giving alms. The fasting that all do together on Fridays is but a sign of the daily Lenten discipline of individuals and households: fasting for certain periods of time, fasting from certain foods, but also fasting from other things and activities. Likewise, the giving of alms is some effort to share this world equally—not only through the distribution of money, but through the sharing of our time and talents.
The key to fruitful observance of these practices is to recognize their link to baptismal renewal. We are called not just to abstain from sin during Lent, but to true conversion of our hearts and minds as followers of Christ. We recall those waters in which we were baptized into Christ’s death, died to sin and evil, and began new life in Christ.
The following is taken from the website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Liturgical Resources for Lent.
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence. For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59.
When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.
The text below is from Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics, (Committee on Pastoral Practices, National Conference of Catholic Bishops: Washington, DC, February, 2001).
Ash Wednesday — This day marks the beginning of the Lenten season. The imposition of ashes is an ancient penitential practice symbolizing our dependence upon God’s mercy and forgiveness. Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence in the Church.
Good Friday — Christ suffered and died for our salvation on Friday. On the Friday that we call “Good,” the Church gathers to commemorate Jesus’ Passion and death. Good Friday is a day of fast and abstinence. The Good Friday fast is the Paschal fast — a fast of anticipation and longing for the Passover of the Lord, which should continue, when possible, through Holy Saturday.
Fridays During Lent — In the United States, the tradition of abstaining from meat on each Friday during Lent is maintained.
Fridays Throughout the Year — In memory of Christ’s suffering and death, the Church prescribes making each Friday throughout the year a penitential day. All of us are urged to prepare appropriately for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday.
Forms of Penance
Fasting — By refraining from eating, we signify our oneness with the Lord, acknowledge our need for conversion, and give witness to our solidarity with those less fortunate. Catholics who are eighteen years and older and in good health are bound until their fifty-ninth birthday by the obligation to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Traditionally, the canonical obligation of fasting has been understood in the Church as the taking of only one full meal a day. [Editor’s note: Two other light meatless meals, are permitted in accord with local custom as to the amount and kind of food. The consumption of solid food between meals is prohibited, but liquids may be taken at any time.]
Abstinence — In the United States, this penitential practice consists of refraining from the consumption of meat. The Latin Church’s requirement of abstinence binds Catholics after they have celebrated their fourteenth birthday, and it is practiced on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Fridays during Lent. Pastors and parents are encouraged to see that children who are not bound by the obligation to fast and abstain are led to appreciate an authentic sense of penance.