Praying By the Rules

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In 1947, parishioners at Saint Francis de Sales Church were invited to submit questions to the rectory, to be answered in the Parish Bulletin. Some of those questions and answers — from a time when all Fridays were meatless and Catholics were required to fast from midnight, the night before taking Communion — offer insight into the mindset and small details of life before Vatican II:

            “Does cleaning the teeth before receiving Holy Communion break the fast? Brushing one’s teeth before Communion is even recommended….The fact that the flavor of the toothpaste or powder (not all toothpaste was paste!) and the moisture remains after rinsing the mouth does not break the fast. It is permitted to swallow one’s saliva, and the few drops of water that remain become part of the saliva…”

Do nose drops break the Communion fast? (Addictive nasal medication led to chronic stuffy noses). No, even though one is certain that a quantity of the fluid passed into the stomach…the substance must pass through the mouth. For the same reason food injections taken through the arm would not break the fast.”

“Does smoking before Communion break the fast? No, it does not. One, however, may well forego this pleasure, making the sacrifice part of the preparation for Communion” (This in a time when most adults smoked, and indoor air was generally thick with haze).

“A person arises during the night and takes a drink of water. The next morning, he cannot remember whether or not it was taken after midnight. May he receive Holy Communion? Yes. Where there is a doubt as to time the doubt may be resolved in favor of the person…”

“Does Daylight Savings Time make any difference in the observance of Friday abstinence from meat? In other words, is a Catholic permitted to eat meat at midnight (DST) Friday? Yes, a Catholic may eat meat at midnight (DST) Friday, even though that same time is an hour before standard time…Canon 33 says…in the observance of fast and abstinence one may deviate from the common custom of the place and follow the local true time, or the mean time, or the legal time, or any of the several ways of computing time.”

Trained by Depression scarcity, wartime experience, and an educational system that still included spanking and other physical punishment, Catholics were used to life framed by rules. The obsession with details seems rigid today, but it also reveals a people actively engaged in their faith – and looking for a straightforward path to navigate an increasingly complicated world.

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