Rorate Caeli

REBUILDING MONTECASSINO: How the Reform of the Eucharistic Fast Preceded the Church’s current Dramatic Period

 Rebuilding Montecassino

From the search for God to the search for self in the observance of the Eucharistic fast


[Rorate’s special translation in honor of the Feast of Saint Benedict.]

The witnesses and documentary evidence that have come down to us state that Jesus, shortly before his death, planned an evening meal, in the course of which he took bread and wine, blessed them, and distributed them to those who were present.


This is the incontestable fact, as incontestable as it is that those who partook of the meal had not fasted beforehand, nor are there any indications that they should have fasted in any way because that supper was carefully planned in every detail (Mt. 26:17-19; Mk. 14 13-16; Lk. 22:8-13), and there is no sign that fasting was a component of it.


Very soon, however, Christians prepared for receiving the Eucharist by a fast, which in the Latin Church consisted of abstaining from food and water from midnight onward.


To understand the whys and the wherefores of the development of this particular observance is to tell a fascinating story.


In 1953, in an unprecedented decision, this practice was stifled and eradicated. It is a painful, but no less fascinating story.


I. Fasting: A mirror to the soul


Our society considers the overall wellbeing it has attained as a normal, certain and further improvable state of affairs.  In the eyes of those who do not belong to this society, or are excluded from it, it emanates a glow so desirable that they risk their lives in order to obtain it.


Its opulence is curiously measured (and in this way also shows its bad conscience) by the need for fasting as a practice of good health, more or less eternal youth and the (illusory) belief of controlling one’s body.  For the past hundred years, fasting has also been a political practice passed off as “nonviolence” against the established power on which it is intended to exert pressure through support from the media.


Nevertheless, it also remains to this day a religious practice through which some, in imitation of the cartoon-character Popeye, base their security and identity on flexing the muscles of their own sanctity.

Fasting in the contemporary world thus carries within it an inverse approach to that practiced by past generations, when most men were not certain that lunch would necessarily be followed by dinner. Fasting used to represent a demanding “subtraction.”


It was a time when man perceived himself first and foremost as a bearer of duties, not rights, and there were no insurance or welfare systems to take care of or delay the precariousness of existence.


One could argue that fasting “consecrated” a de facto situation: ancient man believed that through fasting, he could consecrate himself to the Godhead in order to be filled by His presence.


Contemporary man, religious-man included, on the other hand, fasts for his own sake, because it is almost inherently impossible for him to perform an action from which he cannot derive any benefit.


The ascetic endeavor as a path of knowledge of Creation has undergone a distortion of perception, becoming a frenetic search for one’s own satisfaction (even spiritual satisfaction) in the world.


Today, all of us are marked by this cultural pattern.


A reflection on the practice of the Eucharistic fast cannot but take into account this social reality. In order to approach the theme of the Eucharistic fast, the first necessary step is to clarify the specificity of the Gospel message, the knowledge of which we can no longer take for granted.


II. Who do you say that I am? Recovering the Truth


Christianity did not begin as a religion of observances; it is a proclamation, an invitation to Faith in Christ as the only Savior.


This was its earth-shattering impact!  Let us remember that religiosity does not necessarily entail faith; ancient man was religious because he was immersed in transcendence, but the demands of the Faith required by Christ scandalized not only the Jews, whose faith was one with the observance of the Law, but also the pagans who used to welcome new religious expressions with curiosity and tolerance.


The new commandment introduced by Jesus does not base its newness in love toward others, a practice already known to Israel, but in the as I have loved you, that is, in the shift of the religious act from observances to the person of Jesus, to whom one is asked to entrust oneself.

At the same time, Jesus does not stop repeating that he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. The instrument of its fulfillment is Faith. The dispute with Israel arises in this locus theologicus and that is why Jesus calls Himself the Lord of the Sabbath.  We need to understand in what sense.


The Roman Empire was a space of tolerance for all religions, and the ancients were fascinated by rites. The rite served an essential function as a social vehicle for containing the fear that arose from insecurity due to the forces of nature, the unexplainable nature of political power, and in the face of events before which man felt utterly helpless and defenseless.


Our present situation promotes the pursuit of security by any means, and we do not realize the state of precarious exposure in which all men, even the emperor himself, lived in ancient times.


The call to embrace the Faith, to surrender oneself totally to it, represented an abandonment of self with revolutionary implications, through which many converts discovered a galvanizing inner strength that took on a connotation of liberation from the sources of fear by which they felt oppressed.


Christianity could not help but appear revolutionary and destabilizing, but history has enfeebled it.


The fact that it was not a religion of observances, but of Faith, did not eliminate the inherently human need for ritual; it transcended it and gave it fulfillment albeit within the limits of created nature.


Jesus' message is not opposed to the Law; His every act brings it to its fullest bloom, down to the last iota.


A good example of this might be the moment of the Resurrection. Is it not an occasion for meditation that Jesus rises “after the Sabbath has passed,” a day consecrated to God because it was blessed by Him (Gen. 2:3a)?


Here we should grasp Christ’s lordship over the Sabbath.


It is possible to approach the question of the dynamics that gave rise to the practice of the Eucharistic fast through a scholarly (historical-critical) perspective that, to its credit, has many merits, but also a seed of presumptuousness that leads it to presenting itself as a substitute for Faith.



On the other hand, there is a perspective that could be called “recouping” which, in the face of the current disorientation, believes that it must take from the past (but with what objective criterion?) something to fill the void that has been created.  The practice of the Eucharistic fast in the Roman Church was a private, yet communal practice of relevant ecclesial identity. To choose one path rather than another (the Tradition, Pius XII, Paul VI, or nothing) is to misconstrue the ecclesial roots of this usage that reach deep into the Tradition.


An indispensable element of Tradition is the awareness that in the Church, the Body of Christ, do not take, do not (re)build, I do not update: because we receive it as a gift, and in no other way.

Lastly, it is possible to undertake this from the perspective of responsibility. In destroying Tradition, we are exposed to the most profound of all spiritual experiences. Its root lies in the realization that, following the example of the martyrs, when we accept that we are alone, our solitude will gradually become inhabited. be enlivened


We can only turn to the Tradition and ask God with great effort that He allow us to understand its deep inspiration without ever forgetting what we have become in the process.


III. The dynamics of the practice’s development


We can identify some pivotal moments:

1. Jesus' action in instituting the Eucharist does not indicate the need for any fasting because the consecrated bread and wine are offered at a supper;
2. The early centuries in which the practice of fasting begins;
3. Augustine's testimony reflecting a serene and collective use of the Eucharistic fast in his time;
4. The modification of the centuries-old practice of fasting brought about by Pius XII.



III. 1. The fulfillment of the Law


The Gospels document that Jesus fasted and, in certain cases, urged fasting but had also made arrangements for the last supper in common with the disciples [of Pesach(Synoptics) or of a farewell (John)] without hinting at the need for any fasting.


These are the incontrovertible facts.


By analyzing Jesus’ idea of fasting, we might discover, perhaps, that the Eucharistic fast that Christians (Latin-rite and Eastern-rite) felt they had to perform was not an act of devotion that compensated for an emptiness, but possessed a deep-rooted biblical foundation.


Jesus’ teaching on fasting is stated with precision in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 2:18-22 (a text also quoted, albeit more soberly, in Mt. 9:14-17 and Lk. 5:33-39).


To understand what Jesus is saying, it is necessary to place the practice of fasting in its Old Testament context.  In ancient Israel, fasting had a strong connotation of mourning (1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12); it was a practice adopted in preparation for facing danger (2 Sam. 12:16; 1 Kings 21:27); and as a preparation for divine revelation (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 9:9, 18; Dan. 9:3). Individual fasting was common among the early Jews (Num. 30:14) to “afflict the soul.” However, occasional fasts instituted for the whole of Israel were more frequent, especially when the nation believed itself to be under divine wrath (Jdg. 20:26; 1 Sam. 7:6) or when a great calamity struck the land (Jl. 1:14, 2:12) or when pestilence raged, or when droughts came upon them. In Jonah 3:6-7, we can see how strictly an official fast was observed, while in Is. 58:5 a description is given of a day of fasting among the Jews.


Private fasts were common from early times (Jdt. 8:6; 1 Macc. 3:47; 2 Macc. 12:12). One could take upon himself the responsibility of fasting on certain days, either in memory of certain events in his life or in atonement for his sins or in times of trouble to arouse God’s mercy.


Therefore, although it is certainly a dramatic moment, the Last Supper only later takes on the connotations of affliction for the apostles due to Jesus' moving but troubling words.


Let us return to the Gospel reading of Mark 2:18-22.  Citing the adage that fasting is forbidden (i.e. afflicting oneself cf. Lev. 23:32) in the presence of the bridegroom, Jesus vindicates the fulfillment of his messianic mission, his task of redeeming man from sin, and reminds us, correlating his statement with the Law, that when the bridegroom is “taken away,” then they shall fast.


The expression “the bridegroom is taken away” may be the biblical root of the Eucharistic fast.


The Last Supper comes to be the connective moment between Jesus’ physical presence and the announcement of his betrayal as a prelude to death.


When the bridegroom is taken away.

From this perspective, the Eucharist as a Sacrament - a sensitive and efficacious sign of divine grace - is also better understood; a radically new way that Jesus chooses to be with his disciples.


Therefore, fasting is the absence of the bridegroom.  By identifying himself as the bridegroom, Jesus emphasizes the precept of the Law, brings the Torah to “fulfillment” and contextualizes it in the newness of his saving mission.


The apostles could not fast for that supper because the bridegroom was present. After the supper, when the bridegroom is taken away to give his life as a ransom for many (Mt. 20:28b), a victim of atonement for our sins (1 Jn. 2:2) fasting becomes a necessity that is perceived as vital.


In this perspective, are not Jesus’ words (Jn. 16:2-3.6-9) about the need for the Paraclete illuminating?  Doesn’t Jesus’ gesture of blessing the bread and the wine, that is, the institution of the Sacrament, take on an aspect yet more pregnant with meaning?

To receive the Body and Blood of Christ means being intimately grafted onto His mystery of atonement.


The Bridegroom is the victim of atonement.  The apostles and the first disciples were Jewish Christians; what could the victim of atonement remind them of but the most solemn day of the Jewish religion: the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16)?


On that day the high priest entered the Temple to make the sacrifice on behalf of all the people.


It was the day when God sealed his judgment toward the individual, when the pious Jew, aware of his sins, asked the Lord for forgiveness and when his request to be inscribed by God in the “Book of Life” was granted.  Some emphasized the purity with which one was to approach this day by the custom of wearing white (in albis).


The day of fasting began when the sun went down and lasted until the next day when the first stars appeared; it was so solemn that it was the only day of fasting that was performed even on the Sabbath and, in fact, was called the Sabbath of Sabbaths.


John will write (1 Jn. 2:1b -2): “...we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.”


If we frame the Last Supper in this way, we observe how Jesus is the Passover Lamb who takes upon Himself the sins of the world and experiences firsthand the great celebration of the Day of Atonement.


Finally, a small ritual fact: all Jewish fasts would begin in the morning and end in the evening with the appearance of the first stars, except on two occasions. The fast of the Day of Atonement (which we have discussed) and the fast of Tisha B'Av (Ninth of Av) which was established to commemorate the first and second destruction of the Temple.


Let us remember that the Temple was the sign of God’s presence among His people and thus a symbol of the bridegroom. Is it not said that when Jesus died, the veil of the Temple was torn (Mt. 27:51)?


One could make the hypothesis that the practice of the Eucharistic fast developed under the influence of several elements: the manner of the great fast of atonement, the division of day/night hours in the Roman Empire, and the shifting of the Eucharist to the morning.


While a frequent fast of about 25 hours was not sustainable (coupled also with the need to differentiate from the Jews), it is also true that a fast from morning to evening did not meet the need to disassociate the Eucharist from the agápē.


It is a process that moves from the bottom-up and outside the juridical order, a process where customs fluctuate and blend together.


The result was a tolerable fast from midnight to morning, and spaces were created (Ember days, particular solemn vigils, Lenten Stations) similar, though not overtly, to the great biblical tradition of fasting the 25 hours adapted to the reality of a world no-longer “sacred” as ancient Israel was.


Let us not forget that the osmosis between Judaism and Christianity will last for a long time if an author like St. Bede the Venerable (ϯ 735), still points out that indulging in perfidia judaica (per-fides, deviance from the Faith) is among the few sins that require confession.


After the Ascension, Christians understand the necessity of repeating Jesus’ gesture, his example at the end of the supper (agápē), but already in Paul’s letters there are reported instances of abuse here and there due to the overlap between the banquet and the reception of the consecrated bread that will result in the distinction between the Eucharist and the supper and, finally, its definitive separation from the supper.


If we read the relevant passage in Paul (1 Cor. 11:23-34) we find evidence of these adaptive steps.


Due to this separation, a process will begin through which a particular mindset, along with the Jewish worship practices of the disciples, the worship customs of the pagan converts, and shared meditation on the Mystery of Christ's atonement/redemption, will give rise with the passage of time to the practice of the Eucharistic fast that characterized the Roman Church until the 20th century.


III. 2. The Eucharistic fast over the centuries


Let us address some data which emerges from the historical reading of the facts.


Interesting clues about fasting are found in the Didachè, a second-century A.D. text that some considered part of the New Testament, (though it was eventually excluded from the canon).  The document is interesting because it highlights the path of deviation from Jewish customs while using the same cultural references.


There is no direct mention of a fast preceding the Eucharist, but it is interesting that a fast of one or two days before baptism is foreseen. Since the two sacraments were conjoined, it cannot be ruled out that this indication may have also applied to the Eucharist. We would be looking at a form of proto-Eucharistic fast.


Tertullian offered a testimony that is appealing because of its date (the year 207), but it is essentially neutral as has already been shown.  In the treatise “To a Wife,” we find (II, 5.3): Will not your husband know what it is which you secretly taste before (taking) any food? And if he knows it to be bread, does he not believe it to be that (bread) which it is said to be?


Does he indicate a practice of fasting? It isn’t certain. It reveals that the custom of keeping consecrated bread in the home in order to take communion during the week, was in practice up to this point.


It is true that an “ante omnem cibum” is mentioned, but the overall context seems to suggest more of a covert gesture than a conscious practice.


The Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus, a text that according to the latest studies collects material compiled between the second and fourth centuries, indicates the custom of presenting oneself 'at the oblation' fasting. “Each shall eat in the Name of the Lord. For this is pleasing to God that we should show ourselves as zealots even among the pagans, all of us being unified and sober.” (TA 29)


However, it does not yet seem to be an expression of an established tradition if, in the same text, a mysterious gesture appears during the rite of baptism that is followed by the Eucharist: “The deacons shall immediately bring the oblation. The bishop shall bless the bread, which is the symbol of the Body of Christ; and the bowl of mixed wine, which is the symbol of the Blood which has been shed for all who believe in him; and the milk and honey mixed together, in fulfillment of the promise made to the fathers, in which he said, 'a land flowing with milk and honey,' which Christ indeed gave, his Flesh, through which those who believe are nourished like little children, by the sweetness of his Word, softening the bitter heart; and water also for an oblation, as a sign of the baptism, so that the inner person, which is psychic, may also receive the same as the body.” (TA 27-30).


From the fourth century, some specific accounts of the establishment of fasting appear. If it seems doubtful that St. Basil, in writing about fasting, is certainly referring to the fast preceding the Eucharist, on the other hand, it is certain that Athanasius’ successor in Alexandria, Timothy (ϯ 384) speaks of it as a factual reality.  So much so that his successor, Theophilus (ϯ 412), a man of a different temperament who one year, when the eve of Epiphany fell on a Sunday and having to decide about fasting, determined to keep it until three o’clock in the afternoon, with a small snack around noon (to celebrate the Lord's Day).


In the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus (ϯ 450) we find documentation of diversity in the observance of the fast and also (Book V, 22) a singular testimony: “The Egyptians in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of the Thebaid, hold their religious assemblies on the sabbath, but do not participate in the mysteries in the manner usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their offerings they partake of the mysteries.


This is an expressive document because it notes how some Christians differ from others who participate in the mysteries because they fast.


Sozomenus in his Ecclesiastical History (ϯ 439) also reports that in Egypt on the Sabbath, having had supper, one receives the Eucharist.


In the fourth century, the situation is still fluctuating, but the practice of fasting is tending to take hold more and more.


The earliest evidence on the necessity of the Eucharistic fast seems to appear in the year 393 when a local synod in Hippo decreed: The Sacrament of the Altar shall not be celebrated except by fasting persons.


In the third synod of Carthage in 397, the canon seems to have been taken up in the same words.


Around the year 400, the custom of the Eucharistic fast can be considered a serenely established practice. Testimony is drawn from a famous letter of St. Augustine to Januarius in which we read, “should the universal Church be criticized for this because the Eucharist is always received while fasting?” (Letter 56, 3.4)



However, the letter should be meditated on in its entirety for the standard of practical behavior it suggests and the freedom of spirit it manifests: Other practices, then, vary according to places and regions, such as those in which some fast on the Sabbath and others do not; some take communion every day with the body and blood of the Lord, while others receive it on certain days; in some places no day is allowed to pass without offering the sacrifice, in others it is offered only on Saturdays and Sundays, and in others only on Sundays: the observance of all other practices that may be recalled similar to these is left to the liberty of each one; the best rule to which a serious and prudent Christian can adhere is to act in the way he will see the Church he finds himself in acting[...]When my mother was with me in that city, I, as being only a catechumen, felt no concern about these questions; but it was to her a question causing anxiety, whether she ought, after the custom of our own town, to fast on the Saturday, or, after the custom of the Church of Milan, not to fast. To deliver her from perplexity, I put the question to the man of God (St. Ambrose of Milan) whom I have just named. He answered, What else can I recommend to others than what I do myself?[...]he, following me, added these words: When I am here I do not fast on Saturday; but when I am at Rome, I do: whatever church you may come to, conform to its custom, if you would avoid either receiving or giving offense. This reply I reported to my mother, and it satisfied her, so that she scrupled not to comply with it; and I have myself followed the same rule. (Letter 56, 2.2 – 3).


By the fifth century, the practice was not only established but even entrenched when, in a text attributed to St. John Chrysostom (344-407) to Cyriacus, the bishop was reprimanded for giving communion to people who were not fasting.


From this time on, in the West and in the East, the practice will be firm as the acts of councils begin to testify from the fifth century where they prescribe punishments for those who violate the fast; such as the Third Council of Braga in 572 or the Second of Mâcon, or the Seventh of Toledo in 646 which, for example, excommunicated those who celebrated the Eucharist while not fasting.


Alongside this type of legislation there would also subsist a concern that the need for fasting was coordinated with the need to take into account special situations such as infirmity or danger of death that necessarily limited its use.


The shared experience of fasting will mark Latin-rite Christianity until the 20th century with the necessary and obvious adjustments due to human frailty, but without altering its substance.



III. 3. Master! Do you not care if we die?


The “harmonious development” of nearly two thousand years of observance of the Eucharistic fast suffered a profound rupture with the publication of Pius XII’s 1953 Apostolic Constitution, Christus Dominus.

The practice of the fast had developed through the building up of layers over which legal interventions appeared as adjustments in order to stay the course.  Those interventions, however, did not deviate from the common usage of tradition.


In this case, we have instead a top-down measure which, from the perspective of canon law, was certainly legitimate; was it anchored in Tradition; let alone prudent and wise?


To be fair, it seems that some witnesses recalled a certain reluctance on the part of Pius XII, who would have liked to create a commission to determine whether he possessed the right to make such a radical revision.


Wisdom did not prevail.


Many believe with good reason that this change was the real destabilizing element that would cut off the head of the Catholic Church within 10 years, because the Eucharistic fast of the Roman Church was like the mortar that not only cemented the liturgy but also qualified its membership.


Once it was knocked down, it was seen that almost anything was now possible and in fact, two years later, the mortal wound was inflicted: the reform of the rites of Holy Week.  Then the landslide was unstoppable until the Novus Ordo Missæ of 1969.


Before delving into the reading of the Constitution, it is good to be aware, at least in broad strokes, of what is happening in the Eastern churches.


The Orthodox fast differed from the Roman fast in having a less juridical framing. Attentive to the reality of the individual, it is calibrated to the fervor of his or her spiritual life; it generally begins in the evening (like the ordinary Jewish fast) with a dinner of “Lenten fare” at the end of which one remains fasting until the conclusion of the liturgy of the following day.


Fasting among Orthodox Copts is also mindful of each individual’s fervor and foresees nine hours of abstention from food and drink before approaching the Eucharist. They also follow a usage of sublime evangelical refinement: it is preferable to abstain from fasting rather than make it public. Fasting is a practice that should remain hidden between the Christian and God and, in fact, has no public prominence in the Church.


Let us return to the Constitution of Pius XII, which, as will be in fashion in the years to come, abounds in compassion (now known as mercy). “The times in which we live and their peculiar conditions have brought many modifications in the habits of society and in the activities of common life. Out of these there may arise serious difficulties which could keep men from partaking of the divine mysteries if the law of the Eucharistic fast is to be observed in the way in which it had to be observed up to the present time.


The justification of compassion will be the first symptom of what will become the first-born daughter of the Second Vatican Council: pastoral care - which has only one affirmation, itself, and only one disappointment, Faith.


In this way, it was intended to present the updated church as an “expert in humanity.”


Instead, history is demonstrating the church’s downplaying of the real scope of modernity as a universal plot against any kind of interior life (Pastoral care was supposed to be the medicine and has actually aggravated the problem).


The supreme wisdom of the church dwells elsewhere because it should consist in the ability to tolerate the powerlessness and defeat of proclaiming to the world that Christ is the only Redeemer.


What else is needed?


What mens (mind) was behind the choice of the Constitution, perhaps the reading of Mt. 12:1-8 (a text also quoted in Lk. 6:1-5 and Mk. 2:23-38)?


If it is true as Jesus says, that “something greater than the temple is here. If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’,” (Mt. 12:6b -7), the Gospels while affirming that the Son is Lord even of the Sabbath, do not say that He, on that occasion, ate the ears of corn along with the disciples to emphasize His superiority.


The compassion shown by Jesus does not exclude adherence to, but compliance with the Law, as He Himself repeatedly stated (cf. Mt. 15:17-20).


Now, although some of the situations indicated by the Constitution deserve to be taken very seriously, the effect of the document was not to limit the mitigation of fasting to certain cases, but to nullify a discipline that had its roots at the time of the Church’s birth.


The belief was induced that any “jot or tittle of the Law” could be changed by “supreme authority.”


And the repeated remark of Pius XII is certainly not enough: We still wish through this Apostolic Letter to confirm the supreme force of the law and custom dealing with the Eucharistic fast; and that We wish also to admonish those who are able to observe that same law that they should continue diligently to observe it.


A meager consolation (the only element of “lean” that remains, since it is a matter of fasting...).


In light of the ecclesial events of the following decades, the expressions on which the pope relies to justify (tragically) to himself what he is accomplishing will all be cruelly disavowed.


We are most effectively consoled - and it is right to speak of this here, even though briefly - when We see that devotion to the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is increasing day by day, not only in the souls of the faithful, but also in what has to do with the splendor of the divine worship, which has often been made evident in public popular demonstrations.[...]


May this hunger for the heavenly Bread and the thirst for the Sacred Blood burn in all men of every age and of every walk of life! [...]


Hence, those who may enjoy the faculties granted in this matter should raise fervent prayers to heaven to adore God, to thank Him, and especially to expiate for sins and beg Him for new heavenly aid.


The sequence of events demonstrated a total lack of foresight and substantial delusion with respect to what was really happening to the Church.


The counter-evidence came with Paul VI who 10 years later (1964) decreed, following the wishes of the bishops of the council, to reduce fasting from solid food and alcoholic beverages to one hour (in Pius XII’s time, water was abolished; one wonders what on earth was going on in those years within an hour before... So much for compassion).


With the 1973 instruction Immensae Caritatis, it was reduced to a quarter-hour for the “greatly” aged and the sick.


Within a decade, then, the shift in orientation from the search for God to the search for Self was codified, of which the altar facing the people, instituted after the council, would be the blatant consecration.


The practice of fasting as it had been lived over the centuries was a gateway to God through which man, with his body, reminded himself how God could not be manipulated.


What we have become is well expressed by a December 2014 speech that testifies to what level the masking of the divine has been achieved in seventy years: “when Pope Pius XII freed us from the very heavy cross that was the Eucharistic fast. One could not even drink a drop of water. And to brush one's teeth, one had to make sure that the water was not swallowed.” The Bishop of Rome confided, "I myself, as a boy, went to confession for having received communion because I thought a drop of water had gone in.” Therefore, when Pope Pacelli “changed the discipline - ‘Ah, heresy! He touched the discipline of the Church!’ - So many Pharisees were scandalized. So many. Because Pius XII had done as Jesus did: he saw the need of the people, ‘But poor people, with so much heat!’ These priests, who said three Masses, the last one at one o'clock, after midday, fasting. And these Pharisees were like that - ‘our discipline’ - rigid in skin, but, as Jesus says, ‘rotten in heart,’ weak to the point of rottenness. Dark in heart.”


IV. As it was and where it was


The destruction of the Abbey of Montecassino, because of the particular historical circumstances that have linked that monastery with the Church of Rome over the centuries, can be taken as an effective metaphor for the events that devastated and turned the Catholic Church upside down in the 20th century.


In the aftermath of the war, contrary to what happened in past centuries, it was decided to rebuild the monastery “as it was and where it was.”


A copy is never the original; it responds to the logic of a “reparative intervention” reflecting one’s own guilt, failure, powerlessness, and finally of a magical attitude that fancies that it can rebuild the sublime but fails to restore the charm of the original.


Or, perhaps more accurately, the time of searching for God that certain men live in a particular place, generation after generation, and that slowly soaks into the stones.

The disappearance of the practice of the Eucharistic fast may have been the keystone pummeled out of place that allowed for the destruction suffered by the church of Rome. It was an ascetical tool, not a kind of pious practice that over the centuries attracted the passion of many in dark times when the Faith was weak.


Let us recall how between the 19th and 20th century, the church presented itself as “the church of the Sacred Heart” (today many are even embarrassed when it is mentioned); now we are in the age of the Word of God and never has ignorance been greater with respect to the knowledge of the fundamentals of our Faith.


The practice of the Eucharistic fast was an ascetic tool; it took centuries for it to become a shared and heartfelt experience.  The names of the men who initiated it are known only to God. We, on the other hand, are children of an age in which some men prepare documents that, with a stroke of a pen, demolish and destroy what generations of Christians had passed on as the most precious gifts.


Perhaps our first penance is to tolerate not being able to rebuild from the foundations what we have lost.


If one goes to Montecassino as a visitor, after passing through its gateway, in just a few steps, one reaches the Loggia del Paradiso and one’s gaze is caught by the open arches over the wonderful landscape of the Liri valley below and one becomes almost “distracted” by them.


Looking at photographs of the monastery before the bombing, we realize that at one time those arches were windowless. The pilgrim who arrived was as though contained by the walls. His gaze was “attracted” and guided to the foot of the steps and his eye naturally was driven to look up, toward the church.


Lætatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi, in domum Domini ibimus (Ps. 121, 1).


It is not a question of which perspective is better, but to be aware that it has changed.  The man of old was inclined to look upward; today we are bent downward.


Sometimes the criterion of “as it was and where it was” is a deceptive trap insinuating the belief that in “rebuilding” the past, we can not only pretend that what has happened in the meantime has disappeared, but also delude ourselves that wehave not changed.


Fasting as a source of spiritual life has been dried up in the soul of the (Latin-rite) Christian, like several other aspects of the experience of being a human being in search of God.  He was led to seek only himself, voluntarily blinding himself under the pretext of love of neighbor.


The abuse of power was terrible because it was inflicted by those whose duty it was to preserve the Faith.


To push a man to the death of the soul is to violate him in an absolute way. And, unfortunately, it has as a defensive effect the necessity of forgetting and the need for ignorance.


The apostasy towards which we are being driven every day is the doorway to the death of the soul, and in order for it not to happen, it is necessary to reject any word or gesture that comes from a universe of demolition, especially if it is ecclesiastical.


It is a mindset that amounts to a revolution: to take responsibility for one’s own Faith and not to delegate its preservation.


There may be, however, yet a third temptation. At one time, looking at Montecassinowas like perceiving the presence of a fortress, a beacon of peace in the heart of the storm, an icon of that church, Rome, to which everyone - even non-Christians – looked, as towards the backbone of the world.


To say that the sun and moon have switched positions several times in the Church over the past few decades is being generous.


Let us pick up the life of St. Benedict written by Gregory the Great and read carefully the words Gregory puts into Benedict's mouth.


St. Benedict has a vision of the destruction of the monastery, but he does not urge his monks to escape the ruin.


Destruction is not a good reason to run away, Gregory seems to suggest.


There is never any reason to flee, least of all when we are faced with apostasy; if we did, would we not also encounter Someone who would go and occupy our place and to Whom, amazed, we would be led to ask: quo vadis Domine?


The grandeur of the rebuilt Montecassino is a chimera, and the spiritual practices of the Tradition of the Church are not pieces of antique furniture behind which to defend oneself; it was the mistake of the council whose “experts” succumbed to the challenges of the contemporary world by rebuilding a church “as it was and where it was” on the drawing board.


A desire steeped in omnipotence.


They were convinced they could rebuild the sublime once they had demolished the mystique of the true.


…what we are left with is an immense and frigid void.


That’s what we inhabit today, it’s that we’d like to escape by rebuilding…


Let us not forget that everywhere, even in the worst emptiness, we can always recover the privilege of vacare Deo (of devoting time to God), and when one has this privilege, one realizes that tolerating the difficulty can yield something even more important: perspective.


It is a strenuous clarity of “where we are and how we are.”


The venerable practice of the Eucharistic fast is one of the many ruins of the church among which we wander; let us not deceive ourselves; to rebuild Montecassinomight be nothing but a mishmash of excited emotions, like a forced attempt to find an answer that is… ineffective.


We are called to plough through the deadly darkness with which our souls are imbued because apostasy is the ultimate limit of our vulnerability. This unsettling spiritual adventure encapsulates the demand now before us: the humble and painful experience of the Cross in this Church (Gen. 28:16).


Preserving tradition does not mean turning back (Gen. 19:26) to “as it was and where it was,” but to arrive, “with great effort,” at the singular beauty of the whole, at that imperceptible whisper of the heart:


Nisi Dominus ædificaverit domum, in vanum laboraverunt qui ædificant eam (Ps 126:1).


A medicine for a non-religious church!

A light for a non-religious age!


Article: Clusinus