Question: Every so often, fasting before Holy Communion makes me feel faint. How long are we required to fast before receiving Communion?
Answer: The Eucharistic fast is sometimes a "sore subject" among traditional Catholics. Some view the progressive mitigations of the fast during the forty years or so as part of the Modernist program of disrespect for our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and an attempt to attack belief in the Real Presence. Others see modern industrial life as a reason to do away with all manner of fasting and abstinence. Perhaps there is a middle ground.
The first Eucharistic fast was ordered by Saint Paul for the Corinthians, when he commanded them not to eat during Mass.1 He was concerned that factions were forming, separating wealthy Christians who could afford to eat and drink abundantly, from poor Christians who could not.
The most recent law of the Church requires a fast of one hour from all food and drink except water and medicine. The elderly and the sick, and even those who care for them, are exempt from the fast.2 This is a disciplinary matter, in which the Holy See is fully competent to make regulations less or more strict. Those taking advantage of the liberalization must, of course, not do so with any ideas that devotion to our Eucharistic Lord is now a less important part of the Catholic Faith. For most of us, the modern law does little more than forbid us from eating in the car on the way to Mass!
Those who are reluctant to receive Communion without fasting from midnight are to be commended in their devotion -- and, of course, there is no law keeping them from doing so. However, the mind of the Church in recent centuries has been to make Holy Communion frequently available. To this end, Pope Saint Pius X lowered the age at which children may make their first Communion, and Pope Pius XII made significant concessions to those for whom fasting would be a hardship. Confessors were given ample faculties for dispensing from the fast on a long term basis.3
Catholics must approach the Sacrament of the Altar with the greatest reverence, but ought not be kept away by the natural consequences of illness or age. If you have any doubts about this, please resolve them with your confessor.
1. 1 Corinthians xi: 17-22.
2. New canon 919.
3. Instruction of the Holy Office, 6 January 1953.