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Praying—and fasting

The U.S. Bishops released a statement yesterday urging Catholics to embrace Pope Francis’s call for a day of prayer and fasting next Saturday for an end to the conflict and violence in Syria and elsewhere. The Pope himself is going to lead a prayer-gathering in St. Peter’s Square from 7:00 P.M. to midnight, Rome-time, 1:00 to 6:00 P.M. on the east coast of the U.S.

Has anyone heard of similar specific local events here?

A while back we had a brief discussion of the point of fasting. Here in my translation is a brief reflection on fasting published in the Italian newspaper La Stampa by Enzo Bianchi, founder and prior of the ecumenical monastery of Bose.

The power of fasting

Fasting is an ascetical practice common to all religions, a practice already lived by Israel, proposed again by Christ, and welcomed by the Church’s tradition. Its fundamental role is to make us realize what our hunger is, what it is we live by, what it is that nourishes us.

By fasting we learn to recognize and to bring order to our many appetites by moderating the most basic and vital one, hunger. We learn to discipline our relations with others, with external reality, and with God, relations always tempted by gluttony. Fasting is an asceticism of need and an education of desire. When we fast, we are prodded to examine the quality of our actions, the consequences of our actions, the violence we permit into our relationships. For a Christian, then, fasting is a confession of faith made by the body, a pedagogy that brings the entirety of the person to the worship of God, a reminder imprinted on one’s own body not to live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. That is why, at particularly decisive and critical moments, the Church exhorts Christians to fast in order to think about daily events before God, to purify their own convictions, and to convert so as always to choose in favor of life.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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Fr. K, thanks for these words of Enzo Bianchi.  It would be good to repost them sometime near the beginning of Lent.  I am sorry to say that I spend most of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday wrapped in a cloud of self-pity for how hungry I am, and counting the hours until I can eat a full meal.  (Those who have met me in person can attest that missing a meal or two would not do me any harm).

The Diocese of Trenton posted this on their website, recommending prayer, fasting, and observances at masses:

My parish has organized an hour of prayer and song:

Sounds like a good idea to me.

My parish community is organizing Eucharistic Adoration, Benediction, and Sacrament of Reconcilation from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. 

Nothing so far in the parish that I have noticed but I hope to practice some of it for this intention. As an aside, and on a far less spiritual note, fasting (aka intermittent fasting) also has tremendous health benefits.

My understanding was that the Holy Father urged all local bishops to hold like gatherings on Sept. 7 at the end of his Angelus message.

I know in my own diocese here our bishop offered Benediction on the steps of our state capitol to kick off the Fortnight for Freedom.  Surely he'll also heed the Holy Father's call for local churches to "gather and pray for this intention."

No...wait.....Apparently, we faithful are on our own.


I honestly don't see how fasting will help the situation in Syria.  It seems like a kind of magical thinking.

The USCCB prayer is here:

The first reading for this coming Sunday: "the deliberations of mortals are timid,
and unsure are our plans.

I honestly don't see how fasting will help the situation in Syria.  It seems like a kind of magical thinking.


But of course you could say that about any and all petitionary prayer, couldn't you?

What I find disturbing is that to some—and I would find them misguided—this kind of thing puts world leaders like President Obama, who may actually do something about Bashar Assad, in a bad light. Why can Obama be more like the pope, deploring violence on all sides? "War no more! War never again!"

It is very easy when you are the USCCB and the pope to be evenhanded and to oppose violence and injustice while implying that in this or any conflict, both sides are equally to blame.  Only the powerless have the luxury of writing a prayer like the one on the USCCB site. 

Bob Schwartz: today you posted on the other thread: "To the world: Nazi Germany is gassing and incinerating Jews by the the millions. Proposed Response:  Lets not attack Nazi Germany.  Instead, lets all pray and fast; that should take care of it, Problem solved" at exactly the same time as you posted on this thread: "Sounds like a good idea to me."

What is going on?



Yes, I feel pretty conflicted about petitionary prayer.  I do pray for things but at the same time I feel God should be doing all he can for good without me nagging him.  But it's not just that I think God would be working to help Syria whether we pray for it or not, it's the strange (I think) idea that God is pleased with people ritualistically punishing themselves (fasting) and that he's more likely to snwer those people's prayers. 

I can see this Saturday prayer event raising people's consciousness about Syria and maybe getting them to tell their elected representatives not to intervene, but that doesn't have anything to do with praying to God or fasting.  And even if the west doesn't intervene in Syria, that doesn't = peace.





"I think God would be working to help Syria whether we pray for it or not"


Assuming that to be true, are you really doing anything to really help if you do not pray?  The people of Syria are on the other side of the world.  Thousands of miles away.  The only way we can be joined with them, the  only way we can be spiritually united, in communion with them, is by and through the transcendent God.  That means prayer.

Besides, before prayer is our telling God what to do, it is our opening ourselves to God, who has already uttered the first word.  In prayer, we are responding to His initiative.  In prayer, expressing love for our brothers and sisters, we can obtain grace, the power of God Himself to do things that we otherwise would find difficult or impossible to do on our own.

I think if the bishops were totally serious about this, they would request that all Sunday masses (and Saturday, too) should be superseded by a prayer for peace event. 

OK, so there could be ONE mass as usual for those who think they'll die in a state of mortal sin and go to hell if they don't attend a mass on the weekend.

"are you really doing anything to really help if you do not pray?"

Back in 2007 Jim Wallis of Sojourners sent out emails and posted at his blog asking everyone to pray that congress would vote to end the war in Iraq.  I thought back then too that it wouldn't work - that a large number of people praying for a certain outcome would not be any more effective than one person praying for it, at least as far as getting God to act.  But that doesn't mean I don't pray for stuff like this - I do.  My worry is  ... 1)what this kind of thing says about God:  that he decides to intervene based on the popularity of an issue or on the performance of ritual acts, and 2) what it says about us: that we think group prayer is like magic, like a giant novena, that can command action through intent and numbers, and 3) I worry this kind of thing makes people feel like they are actually doing something to help and they then won't do anything practical instead that might really help.

I honestly don't see how fasting will help the situation in Syria.  It seems like a kind of magical thinking.

Paying and fasting is just the first step. If we pray and fast, maybe we'll be able to better hear God trying to tell us what to do next. In fact I thought the way in which Bianchi presented it in this post was clear: "fast in order to think about daily events before God, to purify their own convictions, and to convert so as always to choose in favor of life." There is nothing there about fasting directly helping the situation in Syria, but plenty about indirect impact. It's not magical but, indeed, pretty straightforward.

Only, fasting I think is powerful for people like Jim P. who apparently need their three square meals a day, and whose stomach complains immediately if it does not get fed at the right time. But it is kind of useless for people like me who have a much more discrete stomach and who sometimes find themselves thinking: "Why am I feeling weak? Oh, right, I have not eaten for 36 hours. Must remember to eat." I wonder: is it connected to gender? Is fasting, as a means of conversion, more of a discipline for men?


I'm all for praying but not fasting - I'd like an explination from those who think fasting is a good thing of how, actually how, going without food for a little while  helps one "think about daily events before God" or helps "purify convictions" , or helps one  "choose in favor of life."   Going without food just gives you low blood sugar with all its pretty much negative attendent physical/mental symptoms.  I think sometimes people believe if they do something that's hard, like fasting, that means it's productive, but as Howard Gray SJ has said about aceticism, harder isn't better, it's just harder.

"they would request that all Sunday masses (and Saturday, too) should be superseded by a prayer for peace event"


This really is sad.  Do you really not know what the Mass is?   Is that really your idea of "serious"?

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the faith, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ - God Himself.  Is it really your suggestion that it is better to do away with the Real Presence of the Lord, that there are more important things than having Him not only spiritually present, but bodily present before us?


The good idea is to fast and pray.  But then someone proposed that we should fast and pray instead of taking positive positive military action.  Bad idea.  Sorry I confused you.  Are we clear now?

Bob: all clear now. Thanks!

Bender --

This time I'm with you :-)

Crystal --

Fasting does something very positive -- it makes us realize, if only for a very brief period of time, what it's like to do without one of life's necessities.  There are billions of people who do without enough food daily.  Fasting makes us more aware of their plight, and if our feelings are human, we will identify with them better and take action to reduce their suffering.

"vote to end the war in Iraq" - You mean, vote to leave Iraq. Look at what is happening there currently, on a daily basis ( ), as a reminder of the consequences of US efforts to rush to bring peace and democracy to another country. In November 2003, President  Bush said: "We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost of casualties and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins. We will help the Iraqi people establish a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East." Ten years later, this is a snapshot of what US "peace" looks like in Iraq:

Ms. Watson:

No one is saying that fasting automatically has the kind of effects that Enzo Bianchi describes. Doing without is simply doing without, and dieting is not fasting. There are biblical indictments of fasting without religious seriousness and convictions, without commitments to the poor.  Nothing in religion accomplishes anything without the participation of mind and heart.

Here, in Italian, two efforts by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi to explain the religious and anthropological meaning of fasting:


Crystal, I believe that prayer and by extension, fasting, have to do with us intentionally joining ourselves to God, to what is good.  Prayer to me is an energy--not "only" words but something more, something mysterious, something we can give but without having control over the outcome.  Fasting does not have to be understood as ritualistic self punishment.  It strikes me as an exercise in self-control---as we gain ground in that discipline, we may hope and pray that others are able to do so as well.  Regarding what is proposed for Syria---I understand the burning need to register opposition to the use of chemical weapons but I think that military intervention, no matter how well intentioned will not produce the desired effect of having Assad stand down in any way.  It simply extends the violence while rationalizing it from another perspective.   Violence is not an answer, tempting as it may be.  Prayer may lead us to recognizing other means of effectively opposing the violence in Syria.

Only, fasting I think is powerful for people like Jim P. who apparently need their three square meals a day, and whose stomach complains immediately if it does not get fed at the right time.


Claire - quite right.  My cats are the same way.

I would say that fasting can also be an exercise in solidarity.  To put it in a United States perspective: the difference between being food-secure and food-insecure is profound, and is difficult for the well-fed like me to appreciate unless we actually miss a few meals.


This much, or little, may be said for prayer and fasting: they are less likely than any of the proposed alternatives to make matters worse in Syria. And they may be of some internal benefit to those who practice them. But for driving action, I suspect they will be about as efficacious as two summers of the Fortnight for Freedom. No matter what happens in this wayward world, it is hard to prove or disprove that prayer brought it about.

John Prior et al:

Prayer and fasting have a central place in hte worship of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. No knowledgeable person thinks that one can empirically establish their efficacy. They are exercises of faith. As Jim Pauwels says, they are also ways to express solidarity with the needy. They are never, at bottom, merely one optional means of worship. They are always part of a well developed life of faith.

Thanks everyone for answers to my questions about fasting.  I saw something today at the Jesuit Post that helped too ...

Bender:  explain that to those who find the quickest mass to get in and out of and then rush off for brunch.

I think that what sounds good in theory is rarely understood by the vast majority of people who attend mass.


and this

4) what happens if God doesn't answer these prayers?  Does it mean that all of those prayers were for the wrong thing?  Is God's non answer the answer?

If people are only going to pray and fast without attempting to move heaven and earth (pun intended) here to get their message to the decision makers, then it seems that Pontium Pilate's hand washing prevails again.

Hi Jim - yes, I agree.

Crystal --

Maybe we fast and pray not because of what God is but because of what we are.

God has told us that He is our father.  I would think that He expects us to talk to Him according to our best understanding of what a father is, even though our understanding is bound to be inadequate.  Surely the Lord's Prayer that Jesus recommends to us would seem to bear that out.  In other words, we don't really have to understand why it's good to pray.  We just need to believe that it is.  Weird, but faith is often weird.


I do think praying is good amd I practice petitionary prayer - sometimes it seems like my prayers are answered and sometimes not.  But it seems different to organize a group prayer for peace ... I'm afraid people will believe they're doing all that needs to be done for peace because they've joined in that prayer, and I worry this kind of prayer exists mostly to make the paray-ers feel comforted rather than to actually constructively help.  As far as fasting goes, I don't see that as positive or helpful at all.  I know people say it symbolizes solidarity with those who are suffering, but I think people who are suffering would prefer concrete help.

Has anyone heard of similar specific local events here?

In the parish where I often go, tomorrow there is a festive meal, planned several months ago, to celebrate getting back together after the end of summer. In the parish where I wiil be this weekend, tomorrow there is a joyful kick-off meeting to present ministries to people and incite them to sign up. In my family there is a get-together of some extended familly to share meals for a day. It's not as though the pope's call arrived in a void and his suggestion was just something to add to an otherwise free agenda. It would be crazy to cancel any of those events in order to pray and fast with the pope, I think. Such a last-minute call with no flexibility is impractical. It was also announced too late for parishes to easily reach their parishioners. Pope Francis should have, for example, asked people to set aside an evening of their choice  this week or next week for prayer and fasting, and he should have made the announcement ahead of last weekend's liturgies. He is showing a certain lack of common sense.

Claire, your point is well-made.  Our parish happens to have its "volunteer appreciation dinner" scheduled for Saturday evening, an event that was pinned to the calendar months ago and that cannot / should not be cancelled.

Our archdiocese did email out to all pastors, for forwarding on to parishioners as best they could, a listing of churches in the diocese that are open for prayers on Saturday.  The implication is that those who wish to fast and pray individually can go into one of those churches for prayer.  It's a practical suggestion, as yet another logistical challenge to the Pope's invitation is that Saturdays are very busy times in many parishes - it's a day for funerals, weddings, sacrament of reconciliation, and a regular Saturday evening mass of anticipation of Sunday mass.



I'll go to Mass and fast tomorrow, but today I called my Senators and my Congressman and told them that my husband and I, registered voters in their district, oppose for religious reasons  military intervention in Syria. 


This discussion has made me think a lot about the ecumenical prayer and fasting services I participated in during the Vietnam war. Those events helped participants see that they were united across religious and political boundaries, and they allowed people to proclaim from their various religious traditions writing and thinking that would provide guidance for actions at that time. 

Mostly these services ended with a call to action. Some individuals might be more likely to write a congressional representative. Others might be more inclined to attend a public rally. One church was moved to provide asylum to a draft resister. Not everyone would respond in the same way or for the same reasons. (And, yes, I suppose some felt they'd done enough by sitting there and praying on the side of the angels. But maybe for those people it was a first step to have attended at all.)

As others have noted above, the prayer service isn't so much to tell God what to do, but to allow oneself to be open to God's love and mercy. God does not need our hunger as a sacrifice nor our help in any endeavor. But if our ultimate goal is to bring forth the Kingdom, then we grow closer to that in our sacrifices. We become agents of God in the way that St. Teresa of Avila envisioned. 

For me, the point of a petitionary prayer is to imagine a world in which suffering and sin are no longer part of the landscape. Through particular intentions, those prayers are a way to keep the Kingdom in front of us. There is always an answer, although it is frequently "not now." Even there, we have a choice--a few tears can lubricate our resolve to keep trying, or we can tamp down those tears and let our empathy and resolve rust up. 

Not sure if this makes sense, but thank you for the discussion.

It makes great senses to me, Jean.

Prayer and fasting can seem like magical thinking -- and can be magical thinking.  Unless we see and do it for us, a type of divine psychotherapy, to clarify our thinking, our motives and our actions, to get more in line with the law of love, to regard all others as persons and not as objects.   And the more who pray and fast, the better.  We are ever in need of stepping out of our  narrow, selfish, objectifying perspective.  Again, the more of us who do this, the better.  I remember years ago someone suggested that the Catholic church become 520 million conscientious objectors.  That would have accomplished something in the real world.  It would have been a kind of miracle.

Robert Lyons
5 September 2013 21:11 (2 of 2)

I can't come to terms with the idea of a 'God of Love' who has to be cajoled by people's fasting and praying into providing peace in areas that lack it. Surely if Love is His essence He should be sufficiently moved by the plight of those who are suffering to do all that He can to help them, regardless of whether people fast and pray for him to do so or not. A God who refuses to provide peace until He receives X amount of prayers and Y amount of fasting sounds more like a shopkeeper than a loving father. I won't be joining in the prayer and fasting, so if God finds himself a prayer and a missed meal short in His tally and as a result decides not to intervene, you'll know who is to blame.

Jim McCrea:

Spare us the condescension!  No one who has contributed to this thread has espoused the primitive notion of God or of religious practice you indict. 

Another effort to explain by Enzo Bianchi:

But,” someone will ask, “how can prayer and fasting in their unarmed weakness confront and stop monstrous war-machines?”... For a believer, prayer is dialogue with God, listening to his Word and asking him to complete what human beings can only begin. But in a broader sense, praying is also “thinking before Another,” facing ethical demands that surpass us and ask us to re-read our lives and events in a light that does not look only or primarily at our own interests. In that sense, I believe, prayer can be shared also by non-believers, by those “people of good will” who–according to St. Matthew’s meaning–are not people with good intentions, but all human beings, objects of God’s mercy, of God’s “good will.”

Fasting is a practice found not only in all religious traditions but also in philosophical thought, in political action, and in the ethical behavior of men and women in every cultural and geographical area. It is a means of self-knowledge, for reading one’s own desires, an antidote to the voracious desire to possess that dwells within us.

The prayer and fasting to which Pope Francis invites us today, can be universal means for discerning what is good for all of humanity and not only for “our” side, for making decisions by other criteria, different from self-centeredness and our own advantage.

Of course, from those with responsibility to govern we do not ask for “symbolic gestures,” but that they assume their responsibility and, above all, display a coherence between what they say ... and the way they exercise their power and engage in political action. To hope that millions of people praying and fasting throughout the world can change the destiny of history can seem a utopian dream, but it is the responsibility of each of us to see that utopia finds a place to dwell, that the unhoped-for becomes reality, that peace and justice embrace, and human beings are no longer enemies to one another.

Full Italian text at:

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