It may be escaping notice that Catholic Church law requires a fast one hour before receiving Communion. As Lent approached, several Sentinel readers inquired about the requirement.

The Catholic catechism (1387) says the fast is necessary “to prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament.”

“The idea is to make us understand this is not ordinary food; we are consuming the Lord,” said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Archdiocese of Portland Office of Divine Worship.

The tradition goes back at least 1,700 years, Msgr. O’Connor explained. In centuries past, Catholics could not eat after midnight and until they had received Communion. Even water and medicine were forbidden. Hoping to increase the number who took Communion, Pope Pius XII in 1953 changed the law to no food three hours before receiving. Water and medicine were allowed. By 1964, the current law went on the books — no food an hour before Communion.

Msgr. O’Connor calls that “kind of a shame,” since most Masses last about an hour, and the fast does not take much discipline “unless you are given to walking into church with a couple of doughnuts.”

Individuals always can choose to sacrifice more if that is for their own spiritual benefit, Msgr. O’Connor explained.

Canon 919 of the church’s Code of Canon Law states, “One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.”

The ancient tradition is rooted in Judaism. Fasting prepared the Israelites to encounter God. For instance, Moses fasted 40 days atop Mount Sinai as he received the Ten Commandments.

Jesus himself fasted 40 days as he prepared to begin public ministry.

In Acts of the Apostles (13:2), there is evidence of fasting connected with worship. Documents show fasting was standard before receiving holy Communion after the legalization of Christianity in 313. Tertullian and St. Augustine cite fasting.

“The fast before receiving holy Communion creates a physical hunger and thirst for the Lord, which in turn augments the spiritual hunger and thirst we ought to have,” says the website Catholic Straight Answers.

As usual, church law is full of compassion. A priest who is saying many Masses is required to fast only before the first Mass. He can eat to keep up his strength for later Masses. Also, those 60 and older or those who are sick can receive Communion even if they have not kept an hour’s fast. That includes, for example, hospital patients, who in general should try to fast about 15 minutes before receiving. But the church realizes that such patients have little control over their schedules.