EXCEPTIONS TO THE LAW OF FASTING
1. Viaticum. —This word means food for a journey, here the journey to eternity. So great is the wish of Holy Church that none of her faithful children should depart this life without spiritual food and strength on the way, that she allows those who are dying, or at least are thought to be in danger of death, to receive Holy Communion after breaking their fast, even, if necessary, after having taken all the meals of the day. The law of fasting, as we have seen, is one made by the Church herself; she can therefore dispense in her own legislation, if in her wisdom she thinks well to do so. In favour of the dying, then, she suspends this law, as otherwise many would be deprived of this spiritual strength in the hour of their greatest need. The danger of death, however, must arise from bodily sickness or disease, as for the reception of Extreme Unction, and not from the imminence of death from other causes, for instance, a coming battle for a soldier, a pending execution, in the case of a criminal.
The danger of death does not need to be immediate, but as soon as there is reasonable fear that death may result from the illness, the sick person is justified in receiving the last Rites, of which Viaticum is one. Therefore those in attendance should not delay sending for the priest till the danger is extreme, but give him timely notice of the case. When it is decided thus to administer Holy Communion, the sick room should be prepared and made tidy, as surely it would be, were some earthly visitor of rank expected to call. Have a small table near the bed head, with a white cloth spread over it; an empty wineglass is needed, with another vessel containing a little water. As a rule, the priest will bring everything else with him, yet, where it can be done, the friends should place a crucifix on the table, along with two blessed candles and a flower or two, thus preparing a sort of altar, whereon to place the Blessed Sacrament, when he arrives. In the meanwhile, they would do well to prepare the patient for his Holy Communion, by saying with him some short prayers or ejaculations, without, however, tiring him with too many.
In the lives of the Saints we find touching examples of the fervour and devotion with which we should endeavour to receive our last Holy Communion. Thus S. Thomas of Aquin, feeling- his end approaching, earnestly begged the last Sacraments to be given to him. In order to receive Holy Viaticum, he would be laid on ashes on the floor, and on this humble bed he made the most fervent acts of faith and love, and shortly after receiving, he gave up his soul to God.
The pious monarch, S. Louis, King of France, being seized with a fatal illness, immediately turned his thoughts to God, to prepare for death. When Holy Viaticum was brought to him, he raised himself up to adore it, and received it with an abundance of tears, which testified to the fervour and tenderness of his love.
While S. Teresa was lying on her bed of death, she asked to receive Holy Communion for the last time. When the priest came into the room, carrying the Blessed Sacrament, she raised herself up, as if to welcome her Jesus. "O my Lord and beloved spouse," she exclaimed, "at last has come the hour I have waited for so long, the hour when I am about to go to Thee for ever." Soon after this, having received the Holy Viaticum, she expired, and went to see, face to face, that Jesus whom she had always so tenderly loved.
The example of these Saints, so devoutly receiving their Viaticum, should lead us, while yet in good health, always to approach Holy Communion with deep faith and humility, so that, when we come at last to receive it as Viaticum, we may in that hour of weakness, from mere habit even, excite ourselves to the same feelings of reverence and love. S. Barbara, a martyred saint of the third century, is sometimes invoked, that her prayers may obtain for us the grace of receiving the last Rites before we die. Let us imitate in that hour the fervour of the Saints, and may our deaths be like unto theirs!
2. Danger of profanation may justify our receiving Communion after breaking our fast. If, for instance, a fanatical mob were about to attack a church and seize the Blessed Sacrament to desecrate it, not only a priest but even a layman would be justified in removing it to another place of safety, or if this could not be done, in consuming the sacred species, in spite of his not being fasting at the moment.
3. Completion of the Sacrifice. —If a priest in saying Mass were suddenly taken ill, or came to die after the Consecration, another priest would have to continue and complete the Sacrifice; one who had not broken his fast should of course be preferred, but if none such could be found, then another who had broken it must do it instead. Similarly, if on receiving the Chalice, the Celebrant discovered it was not wine that was in it, but water or some other liquid, he would be bound to take wine, then consecrate and receive it, although by taking the water already, he had clearly broken his fast. The underlying principle in all this is, that the Sacrifice once truly begun by the Consecration, may not be left incomplete ; this is a higher law than the ecclesiastical precept of fasting, and takes precedence, so that anyone witnessing such a case, which may be a very practical one, has no reason to be shocked or surprised at seeing Holy Communion received by a priest who is no longer fasting.
4. The New Law of 1906.—By decree of 7th December, the Holy See, in that year, granted special facilities in reference to Communion being received by those who are ailing and sick, though in no sense in danger of death; it mitigates considerably the difficulty of the law of fasting before Communion. After stating that petitions on behalf of the sick had been addressed to him, Pius X., consulting the Congregation of the Council, granted "that sick persons who have already been laid up for a month and have no sure hope of speedy recovery, shall be allowed, with the confessor's approval, to receive the most Holy Eucharist, in spite of their having taken nourishment in the form of liquid." Thus non-fasting Communion may now be received by the Faithful, under certain circumstances.
It is hardly possible to develop here the details of a subject which is somewhat intricate, but the confessor or parish priest will be able to advise such as may be in the unwelcome position of having to receive their Communion according to these new regulations, which show the indulgent character of the Church and her kind consideration for the weakness of her children.
What are the current rules for fasting before Holy Communion?(a) For many centuries the Church commanded a strict fast from midnight before one could receive Holy Communion. However, in the 1950's Pope Pius XII introduced a much more lenient form of fasting before Holy Communion in order to give Catholics an opportunity to receive Holy Communion more frequently.
(b) Pope Pius XII also allowed the celebration of afternoon and evening Masses every day, when the spiritual good of a considerable number of the faithful requires it. It is the right of the bishop of each diocese to decide when such Masses may be offered in his diocese.
(c) Paul VI further reduced the fasting requirement after the Second Vatican Council, requiring only a one hour fast from all food and drink (excluding water). This may be reduced to 15 minutes for those who are sick or for other important reasons. This is the practice currently in force.
When may Holy Communion be received without fasting?
Holy Communion may be received without fasting when one is in danger of death, or when it is necessary to save the Blessed Sacrament from insult or injury.
(a) Ordinarily the danger of death comes from sickness or injury. But it is not necessary that a person be in danger of death from sickness in order to receive Holy Communion without fasting. The danger of death may come from some other cause. A soldier, for example, who is about to go into battle or a person about to be executed may receive Holy Communion without fasting.