Beyond the requirements that the Church mandates for fasting and abstinence, Catholics have always been encouraged to observe additional days. Various religious orders have encouraged or mandated fasting beyond the requirements for the Universal Church. For instance, Third Order Dominicans who keep the 1923 Rule, the last Rule in place before Vatican II, are encouraged to fast on the vigils of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Dominic, and the Feast of the Holy Rosary. And the fasting and abstinence requirements have always varied from country to country.
Fasting and abstinence for the Universal Church have changed over time. In ancient times, Saturdays were, along with Wednesdays and Fridays, days of fasting. The Douay Catechism of 1649 mentions that both Fridays and Saturdays were days of abstinence throughout the year.
The Catholic Encyclopedia mentions, in regard to Saturday abstinence: “Gregory VII (1073-85) speaks in no uncertain terms of the obligation to abstain on Saturdays, when he declares that all Christians are bound to abstain from flesh meat on Saturday as often as no major solemnity (e.g. Christmas) occurs on Saturday, or no infirmity serves to cancel the obligation.” In fact, this remained the law for Americans into the 19th century. In 1833, following the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, the US bishops in a pastoral letter which announced that Americans from then on would not have to abstain from meat on Saturdays—except or the Saturdays of Lent, ember weeks, and Saturdays which were vigils of major feasts. This dispensation was renewed, as necessary, up until 1917 when the Code of Canon Law removed the requirement of Saturday abstinence for the Universal Church. The only remnant of this by the early 1960s was found in the partial abstinence and fasting requirements on Ember Saturdays and on Saturdays in Lent.
Taken from the Douay Catechism, we read:
“Why abstinence on Saturdays? A. To prepare ourselves for a devout keeping of the Sunday, as also in honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, who stood firm in faith on that day, the apostles themselves wavering.”
As indicated in this passage, Saturday fasting may also be done in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Beyond continuing the Friday abstinence and fasting until the beginning of Sunday, the Lord’s Day, Saturday fasting has the characteristic of honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is always honored and recalled in a special manner on Saturdays. It was on Holy Saturday that the Virgin Mother of God patiently awaited Our Lord’s Resurrection. And we may keep Her company and honor Her while also making reparation for sins by keeping at least some Saturdays as voluntary days of fasting.
FROM THE SAINTS
On this principle, St. Alphonsus Liguori writes in The Glories of Mary:
“There are many devout clients of Mary who, to honour Her, fast on bread and water on Saturdays, and the Vigils of Her Feasts.
“It is well known that Saturday is dedicated by the Holy Church to Mary, because, as St. Bernard says, on that day, the day after the death of Her Son, She remained constant in Faith. Therefore, Mary’s clients are careful to honour Her on that day by some particular devotion, and especially by fasting on bread and water, as did St. Charles Borromeo, Cardinal Tolet, and so many others. Nittardo, Bishop of Bamberg, and Father Joseph Arriaga, of the Society of Jesus, took no food at all on that day.
“The great graces that the Mother of God has dispensed to those who do this are recorded by Father Auriemma. Let one example suffice: it is that of a famous captain of brigands, who, on account of this devotion, was preserved in life after his head had been cut off, and was thus enabled to make his Confession; for the unfortunate creature was in a state of sin. After Confession he declared that, on account of this devotion, the Blessed Virgin had obtained for him so great a grace, and immediately expired.
“It would not, then, be anything very great, for a person who pretends to be devout to Mary, and particularly for one who has perhaps already deserved hell, to offer Her this fast on Saturdays. I affirm that those who practise this devotion can hardly be lost; not that I mean to say that if they die in mortal sin the Blessed Virgin will deliver them by a miracle, as She did this bandit: these are prodigies of Divine mercy which very rarely occur, and it would be the height of folly to expect eternal salvation by such means; but I say, that for those who practise this devotion, the Divine Mother will make perseverance in God’s grace easy, and obtain [for] them a good death. All the members of our little Congregation, who are able to do so, practise this devotion.
“I say those who are unable to do so, and if our health does not permit it, at least we should on Saturdays content ourselves with one dish, or observe an ordinary fast, or abstain from fruit or something for which we have a relish. On Saturdays we should always practise some devotion in honour of our Blessed Lady, receive Holy Communion, or at least hear Mass, visit an image of Mary, wear a hair-cloth, or something of that sort. But at least on the Vigils of Her Seven Principal Festivals, Her clients should either offer Her this fast on bread and water, or honour Her otherwise as best they can.”
FOR THOSE DEVOTED TO OUR LADY
Most of the readers who visit this site are devoted to our Blessed Mother. Thus, it behooves us to note how St. Alphonsus, a great Marian doctor, says that we should all practice some form of devotion to Our Lady on every single Saturday. This is certainly an area in which we can examine our conscience and strive for increased fervor. After all, such tokens of love greatly enhance any relationship.
If fasting strikes you as too severe, why not choose to abstain from meat on Saturdays, just as you do on Fridays? Or perhaps at least forego sweets, alcohol, or some other “luxury” on Saturdays out of gratitude to Our Blessed Mother. Surely, reparation and penances performed on a Saturday, precisely because Holy Mother Church has dedicated this day to Our Lady, will merit greater graces and greatly please Our Heavenly Queen.
Spend some time today looking at the calendar for the rest of the year. Besides those Saturdays which would already be observed as days of fast according to tradition (i.e., the Vigil of All Saints on October 31, and Ember Saturday of Advent on December 19), I would encourage you to record on your calendar the intention to fast on various other Saturdays. And chief among the Saturdays worthy of fasting are certainly the First Saturdays of the month. Commit to this intention and inform your family of this for greater accountability.
 The 1923 Rule for the Third Order of St. Dominic does not bind under penalty of sin. Unless someone intentionally desires to violate the Rule, failure to fast is not a sin. Thus, we may say that the rule “asks” rather than requires fasting on these three vigils, which are in addition to all fasting days on the Church’s Universal Calendar.
 A study of how the fasting and abstinence rules varied in the early American colonies indicates this principle that there may be variety in discipline from region to region. See https://acatholiclife.blogspot.com/2020/05/a-history-of-holy-days-of-obligation.html for a breakdown of this variety.
 Since ancient times, Wednesday was a day of penance to atone for the betrayal of Our Lord. Tradition holds that it was on “Spy Wednesday” of the original Holy Week that Judas made the arrangement to sell Our Lord to the Sanhedrin for thirty pieces of silver.
 See https://fatima.org/news-views/fasting-part-2-fasting-in-the-early-church-through-the-5th-century/ for more information on how fasting was observed in the early Church.
 We can piously maintain that Our Lady Herself reaffirms this devotion in Her Fatima Message when She specifically requested that every First Saturday of the month be dedicated in a special way to offering reparation for the thorns with which ungrateful men pierce Her Immaculate Heart.