Lenten sacrifices: What about Sundays?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 09, 2016

One of the priests in our parish frequently tries to get us to be tougher when it comes to a willingness to sacrifice. Each year around this time he speaks repeatedly about the desirability of extending our Lenten practices throughout all the days of the Lenten season. He is unimpressed by the common practice of leaving Sundays out of our self-imposed penances.

So what is the right answer to the question of whether we should practice our Lenten sacrifices on Sunday?

I can remember as a boy that our family gave up whatever it is we gave up from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, inclusive of all the Sundays. As a bright and enterprising child, however, I eventually realized that the Sundays are not counted as part of the forty days of Lent. The only way you can count to 40 each year is to leave out the Sundays but include the first two-thirds of the Sacred Triduum (Good Friday and Holy Saturday). So I reasoned that Sundays, being a celebration of the Resurrection, were better left without Lenten sacrifices.

And indeed, this has become a widespread practice in the United States. But as I said, this custom has not swayed the (Hispanic) priest who nudges my frail conscience each year. He points out that even if the Sundays are not part of the 40-day count, they are part of the Season of Lent, which is unquestionably true. He further notes that the Church herself drops both the Gloria and the Alleluia verse before the Gospel on Sundays in Lent, giving them a penitential aspect in comparison with Ordinary Time, Christmas and Easter. This is also true.

The Gloria is dropped in the season of Advent as well, since Advent emphasizes our yearning for the Lord who has not yet come. In the same way, Lent emphasizes the sacrificial mission of the Christ who has not yet risen.

So again, we must ask, who is right?

If you look around the web for answers, you’ll find a number of reputable Catholic sites which state that Lenten penances are not customarily observed on the Sundays of Lent, and even that “fasting” is never appropriate on a Sunday. The latter might be true if we are speaking of real fasting—the kind of fasting performed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But ought that apply to the metaphorical fasting we voluntarily undertake “for Lent”?

If I decide to give alms more generously during Lent, should I make a point of not doing so on Sunday? The question answers itself (and in fact John Paul II officially recommended special service to the needy as a way of keeping the Lord’s Day holy). If I’m cutting back on reading mysteries for Lent (and I am), should I be sure to read a good mystery novel every Sunday? If I’ve given up candy or coffee, must I feel guilty if I fail to eat candy or drink coffee on Sunday? Again, the answers to these questions are obvious.

In point of fact, the Church does not regulate our voluntary Lenten penances. She recognizes the penitential value of the Season of Lent, and she recognizes that Sunday is always a special remembrance of the Resurrection. But she does not regulate our self-imposed penances. For most of us, the current laws pertaining to fasting and abstinence during Lent apply only to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (fasting and abstinence) and to all the other Fridays of Lent (abstinence). That’s it.

If you are seeking a recommendation to guide you in making your own decision (for the decision is yours alone), let me quote from the advice given on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. If you reside elsewhere, you may wish to check the current recommendations of your own Conference or particular bishop. It is generally salutary to give up one’s own will in such matters, so if your bishop would prefer that you do things a certain way, that’s a very reasonable argument for doing so.

Indeed, the benefit of giving up my own will actually provides a good argument—all other things being equal—for me to follow the pastoral advice of a priest who has the care of my soul. But your decision really is up to you. Here is what the USCCB says:

Q: So does that [the fact that Sundays are not counted in the 40 days] mean that when we give something up for Lent, such as candy, we can have it on Sundays?
A: Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: gallardo.vm5565 - Feb. 10, 2016 5:22 PM ET USA

    Ok, I'm keeping it all the way through. thanks!

  • Posted by: Terri11 - Feb. 10, 2016 12:52 AM ET USA

    If you're even asking the question, you're doing well! How many people go to Mass on weekday and would therefore miss the Gloria/Alleluia if it were omitted M-Sat, but not Sunday? How many people understand what Sunday being a Feast day *really* means? If you know that much about your faith, good for you! I trust you to take lent seriously. I admit, I feel a little guilt at taking Sundays off when others don't, but it makes me more willing to try to give up harder stuff.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Feb. 09, 2016 5:37 PM ET USA

    I spent a number of months as a postulant in a contemplative monastery, including during Lent. There were quite a number of penitential practices kept corporately and a few individually. The fasting from food was not observed on Sundays, nor the increased silence. All other practices remained in place. It seemed a good system.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Feb. 09, 2016 5:28 PM ET USA

    Some Catholics (yes even Roman Rite Catholics) today do practice traditional, literal fast and abstinence throughout Lent. For these, "fat Tuesday" does mean eating up the remainder of foods one doesn't eat during Lent, and because Sunday is the principal Solemnity it's always a break from the fast. It was within living memory of some that real Lenten fasting was an ordinary thing. That continues to have value. The Church never banned that; the obligations about fasting are just more limited