Ember Days in the Early 1900s
The days of obligatory fasting as listed in the 1917 Code of Canon Law were the forty days of Lent (including Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday until noon); the Ember Days; and the Vigils of Pentecost, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints, and Christmas. Partial abstinence, the eating of meat only at the principal meal, was obligatory on all weekdays of Lent (Monday through Thursday). And of course, complete abstinence was required on all Fridays, including Fridays of Lent, except when a Holy Day of Obligation fell on a Friday outside of Lent. Saturdays in Lent were likewise days of complete abstinence. Fasting and abstinence were not observed should a vigil fall on a Sunday, as stated in the Code: “If a vigil that is a fast day falls on a Sunday, the fast is not to be anticipated on Saturday but is dropped altogether that year.”
Canon 1006 of the 1917 Code further stated men were to be ordained only on Ember Saturdays, Holy Saturday, and the Saturday before Passion Sunday, but the Code added: “If a serious cause intervenes, the bishop can have them even on any Sunday or feast day of the order.” Episcopal consecration was reserved for Sundays and for Feasts of the Apostles. Thus, even the 1917 Code kept the ancient practice of holding Ember Days as privileged days for ordinations.
Many changes, though, would continue through the 20th century. In one such change, on January 28, 1949, the United States bishops issued modified regulations on abstinence in America, again after receiving a ruling from the Sacred Congregation of the Council (renamed as the Congregation for the Clergy in 1967). Partial abstinence replaced complete abstinence for Ember Wednesdays, Ember Saturdays, and the Vigil of Pentecost. Previously, all Ember Days were days of complete abstinence.
Changes to Ember Days in the Early 1960s
By 1962, the laws of fasting and abstinence were as follows, as described in Moral Theology by Father Heribert Jone and adapted by Father Urban Adelman for the “laws and customs of the United States of America,” copyright 1961:
“Complete abstinence is to be observed on all Fridays of the year, Ash Wednesday, the Vigils of Immaculate Conception and Christmas. Partial abstinence is to be observed on Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays and on the Vigil of Pentecost. Days of fast are all the weekdays of Lent, Ember Days, and the Vigil of Pentecost. If a vigil falls on a Sunday, the law of abstinence and fasting is dispensed that year and is not transferred to the preceding day.”
1960 also saw a change to the calculation of how the autumnal Ember Days can follow, as the Barefoot Abbey website explains:
“Autumn Ember Days are unique in their scheduling. With the 1960 revisions to the breviary rubrics and the newly instituted system of counting Sundays from August to December, Pope John XXIII added that the September Ember Days should not only follow the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross as they had historically done, but also fall after the 3rd Sunday of September.”
Gregory DiPippo explains in more detail how the counting of Sundays changed at this time:
“The first Sunday of each of these months is the day on which the Church begins to read a new set of scriptural books at Matins, with their accompanying antiphons and responsories; these readings are part of a system which goes back to the sixth century… The ‘first Sunday’ of each of these months is traditionally that which occurs closest to the first calendar day of the month, even if that day occurs within the end of the previous month… In the 1960 revision, however, the first Sunday of the months from August to November is always that which occurs first within the calendar month.”
Thus, not only did fasting change before Vatican II but the possible dates of the Ember Days were changed as well.
The Abandonment of Our Heritage
Shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council (on February 17, 1966), Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution on fasting and abstaining, called Paenitemini, whose principals were later incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Paenitemini allowed the commutation of the Friday abstinence to an act of penance at the discretion of the local ordinaries and gave authority to the episcopal conferences on how the universal rules would be applied in their region. Abstinence, which previously began at age seven, was modified to begin at age fourteen. Additionally, the obligation of fasting on the Ember Days and on the remaining vigils was abolished.
Father Lew, commenting on the post-conciliar changes, admonishes priests accordingly:
“True, modern canon law is silent about the Ember Days. But tucked away in an obscure corner of the 1970 missal is a reference to ‘the Four Times, in which the Church is accustomed to pray to our Lord for the various needs of men, especially for the fruits of the earth and human labours, and to give Him public thanks’ (Normæ Universales de Anno Liturgico, 45). The same words remain in the 3rd editio typica of this missal, published in 2002. However, the ‘adaptation’ of these days is left to Bishops’ Conferences: they can decide how many are to be observed, and when, and with what prayers. A couple of ‘fast days’ are duly marked on each year’s Ordo for the Church in England and Wales, one in Lent and one in October, with the suggestion of celebrating a votive Mass of a suitable kind. Surely so ancient a tradition as the Ember Days must not be allowed to fade away.”
May we all return to the practice and observance of the Ember Days for the glory of God and for reparation for sin. Offering up our fasts for vocations and for the priests who are ordained on – or around – the Ember Days would be a meritorious and charitable work we can do. And we can spend more time learning about this part of our heritage. Like Ember Days, so much of our history of fasting and abstinence has been forgotten.
For a thorough examination of things related to fasting and abstinence traditions, pick up a copy of The Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting & Abstinence.
 Father Heribert Jone, Moral Theology (The Newman Press, 1961), pp. 261-262.
 Gregory DiPippo, “The Calculation of the September Ember Days” (New Liturgical Movement, 2015).
 Father Lawrence Lew, “Rekindling the Embers” (New Liturgical Movement, 2012).