St. Charles Borromeo

Fasting Part 5: Fasting During the Renaissance: 13th – Middle 18th Centuries

Read the previous article: Other Fasts in the Medieval Church (Part 4)


As the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance emerged, the piety and devotion of many souls likewise became tempered. The Catholic Church underwent significant trials during these centuries, including the Protestant Revolt and the resulting loss of hundreds of thousands of souls, yet She also found new children in lands previously undiscovered.

Fasting in the New World[1]

Fasting and abstinence, along with Holy Days of Obligation, were highly varied in practice depending on each nation and territory. We see this liturgical diversity in the various colonies.

For instance, Catholics in the colonies of Florida and Louisiana observed these fasting days:

“The fasting days were all days in Lent; the Ember days; the eves of Christmas, Candlemas, Annunciation, Assumption, All Saints, the feasts of the Apostles except St Philip and St James and St John, nativity of St John the Baptist; all Fridays except within twelve days of Christmas and between Easter and Ascension, and the eve of Ascension.”

For abstinence from meat, they would have observed these days:

“All Sundays in Lent, all Saturdays throughout the year, Monday and Tuesday before Ascension [Rogation Days], and St Mark’s day [on account of the Greater Litanies] were of abstinence from flesh meat.”

The western colonies under Spanish rule in modern-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California observed as fast days:

“…all days in Lent except Sunday; eves of Christmas, Whit Sunday, St Mathias, St John the Baptist, St Peter and St Paul, St James, St Lawrence, Assumption, St Bartholomew, St Matthew, St Simon and St Jude, All Saints, St Andrew, and St Thomas.”

It should be noted that in 1089 Pope Urban II granted a dispensation to Spain from abstinence on Fridays, in virtue of the Spanish efforts in the Crusades. After the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Pope St. Pius V expanded that privilege to all Spanish colonies. That dispensation remained in place in some places until as late as 1951 when the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the last territory to invoke it, rescinded the privilege.

There was a distinction made between Native Americans and European settlers. The papal bull Altitudo Divini Concilii of Pope Paul III in 1537 reduced the days of penance and those of hearing Mass for the Native Americans, out of pastoral concern due to the physically demanding lifestyle that they lived and also largely due to the fact that they fasted so much already. As a result, the only fasting days required under pain of sin for the Native Americans were the Fridays in Lent, Holy Saturday, and Christmas Eve.

Lenten Fast Is Altered

As previously mentioned, the Lenten fast was originally observed as a single meal taken after sunset. By the 9th century, a small collation in the evening was introduced on account of the physical work done by the Benedictine monks. And the one meal was moved to 3 o’clock.

By the fourteenth century, the meal had begun to move up steadily until it began to take place even at 12 o’clock noon. The change became so common that it became part of the Church’s discipline. In one interesting but often unknown fact, because the monks would pray the liturgical hour of None before they would eat their meal, the custom of calling “midday” by the name “noon” entered into our vocabulary as a result of the fast. With the meal moved up, the evening collation remained.

The Protestant Attack on Penance

In the Middle Ages, abstinence from meat on Fridays and during Lent was not only Church law – it was civil law as well. And people gladly obeyed these laws out of respect for the teaching authority of the Church. Yet, after the Protestant revolt, which began in 1517 and continued through the middle of the 1600s, this was to change.

The same occurred in England, which followed the revolt of Martin Luther and his peers. King Henry VIII, who was previously given the title “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X for his defense against Luther, succumbed to heresy and schism when he broke from Our Lord’s established Church on earth in 1533 to engage in adultery. Church property was seized. Catholics were killed. Catholicism was made illegal in England in 1559 under Queen Elizabeth I, and for 232 years, except during the brief reign of the Catholic King James II (1685-1688), the Catholic Mass was illegal until 1791. Yet, the Anglicans at least kept the Catholic customs of abstinence for some years.

English Royalty proclamations supporting abstinence of meat continued to occur in England in 1563, 1619, 1625, 1627, and 1631. The same likewise occurred in 1687 under King James II. After the Revolution in 1688 and the overthrow of Catholicism by William III and Mary II, the laws were no longer enforced and were officially removed from the law books by the Statue Law Revision Act in 1863. Similar changes occurred throughout Europe as Protestants reviled the fast.[2]

The Example of St. Charles Borromeo

It was the saintly archbishop, St. Charles Borromeo (1538 – 1584), the champion of the Counter-Reformation against the Protestants, who championed fasting and penance.

Rogation Days, which we covered in the previous installment, have been observed for centuries even if the Catholic Church in our modern era has virtually forgotten them. A similar situation occurred before in the Diocese of Milan. It was St. Charles who restored them and enhanced them in the Diocese of Milan. Interestingly, even though Rome never mandated fasting on the Rogation Days, since they occur during the Easter Season, St. Charles Borromeo mandated them in his own diocese.

Dom Gueranger, in The Liturgical Year, provides us with a holy example which should show us the spirit of penance which should animate all of our lives on the Rogation Days:

“St. Charles Borromeo, who restored in his diocese of Milan so many ancient practices of piety, was sure not to be indifferent about the Rogation days. He spared neither word nor example to reanimate this salutary devotion among his people. He ordered fasting to be observed during these three days; he fasted himself on bread and water. The procession, in which all the clergy of the city were obliged to join, and which began after the sprinkling of ashes, started from the cathedral at an early hour in the morning, and was not over till three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Thirteen churches were visited on the Monday; nine, on the Tuesday; and eleven, on the Wednesday. The saintly archbishop celebrated Mass and preached in one of these churches.”

St. Charles Borromeo did not only encourage the Rogation Days. He ministered personally to thousands of plague-striven victims when the civil authorities had fled Milan. He offered Masses, administered the Sacraments, consistently led processions, and offered an authentic Catholic response to a pandemic.[3]

The fast of Advent, which had continued to decline, had taken the form of only Wednesday and Friday penance. To stir the people to observe the true spirit of penance, even beyond the letter of the law, St. Charles also strongly urged those in Milan to fast on the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays of each week of Advent.[4] In one key distinction, Milan keeps the Ambrosian Rite, which differs in several aspects from the Roman Rite. One of those key differences is that Advent in the Ambrosian Rite always begins on the Sunday after the feast of Saint Martin of Tours, alluding back centuries before to St. Martin’s Lent as it was practiced in the Roman Rite.


As the centuries advance, the trend in discipline continues. Centuries before Our Lady of Fatima called for penance, the sins of pride, heresy, schism, and indifference led to less and less penance being practiced by the faithful.

In the next installment, we will consider fasting from the time of Pope Benedict XIV (reigned 1740 – 1758) up to Pope St. Pius X and see that many practices considered traditional today are actually concessions because of a lack of faith.

[1] Sources for this section are quoted from The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Volume 11.

[2] The Affair of Sausage, in 1522 by Zwingli, launched the Reformation in Zurich as he falsely claimed that since the Protestant guiding principle of “sola scriptura” was the only authority, sausages should be eaten publicly during Lent in defiance.

[3] The Life of St. Charles Borromeo by John Peter Giussano provides in-depth accounts of his heroic life and the example of penance he reached, even in the midst of a devastating plague. It may be read at

[4] Dom Gueranger testifies to this in The Liturgical Year: Advent, published in 1910 by Burns & Oates, p. 24), and the Catholic Encyclopedia.