I suppose it has struck many persons as very remarkable, that in the latter times the strictness and severity in religion of former ages has been so much relaxed. There has been a gradual abandonment of painful duties which were formerly inforced upon all. Time was when all persons, to speak generally, abstained from flesh through the whole of Lent. There have been dispensations on this point again and again, and this very year there is a fresh one. What is the meaning of this? What are we to gather from it? This is a question worth considering. Various answers may be given, but I shall confine myself to one of them.
I answer that fasting is only one branch of a large and momentous duty, the subdual of ourselves to Christ. We must surrender to Him all we have, all we are. We must keep nothing back. We must present to Him as captive prisoners with whom He may do what He will, our soul and body, our reason, our judgement, our affections, our imagination, our tastes, our appetite. The great thing is to subdue ourselves; but as to the particular form in which the great precept of self-conquest and self-surrender is to be expressed, that depends on the person himself, and on the time or place. What is good for one age or person, is not good for another.
There are other instances of the same variation. For example, devotion to the Saints is a Catholic practice. It is founded on a clear Catholic doctrine, and the Catholic practice has been the same from the beginning. It could not possibly change. Yet it is certain that the prominent object of that devotion has varied at different times, varying now in the case of individuals, one person having a devotion to one saint, another to another; and in like manner it has varied in the Church at large—for example, quite at first the Martyrs, as was natural, took up this principal attention. It was natural, when their friends were dying daily under the sword or at the stake before their eyes, to direct their devotion in the first instance to their glorified spirits. But when a time of external peace was granted, then the thought of the Blessed Virgin took up its abode in the hearts of the faithful, and there was a greater devotion than before to her. And this thought of the Blessed Virgin has grown stronger and clearer and more influential in the minds of the Church. The devout servants of Mary were comparatively few in the first ages, now they are many....
Now apply these illustrations to the case in point. From what has been said it follows that you must not suppose that nothing is incumbent on us in the way of mortification, though you have not to fast so strictly as formerly. It is reasonable to think that some other duty of the same general kind, may take its place; and therefore the permission granted us in eating may be a suggestion to us to be more severe with ourselves on the other hand in certain other respects.