ROME, 5 FEB. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q1: Are laypeople allowed to give out ashes on Ash Wednesday? At the
Mass I attend on Ash Wednesday I would say there were more than enough
obviously it would have taken longer
but I can't think that the laypersons were actually needed as such.
C.McL., Greenock, Scotland
Q2: The priest sprinkled the ashes on our heads as if he were putting a
pinch of salt into a recipe (rubbing his thumb and index finger over the
head while reciting the prescribed words). As far as I can remember, the
only method I've seen used in the past has been a cross on the forehead.
I always thought that the cross on the forehead was a blessing with the
ashes. Is there a correct and/or incorrect way of applying the ashes?
A: With respect to the first question the Shorter Book of Blessings has
a rite for the blessing and distribution of ashes outside of Mass. No.
1062 of this book has the following indication:
"This rite may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted
by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the
ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon."
A lay minister may also lead a slightly varied version of the rite of
distribution using ashes previously blessed by a priest or deacon, for
example, when bringing ashes to the sick.
The Roman Missal makes no explicit mention of the use of lay ministers
to assist in the distribution of ashes blessed during Mass. I believe,
however, that the indication in the Book of Blessings also applies to
this situation whenever such help proves necessary.
The second question regards the manner of imposing ashes. There are no
set rules regarding this, and it largely depends on local custom.
In most English-speaking countries the prevailing custom seems to be
that the priest places enough holy water into the ashes to form a kind
of paste. The ashes are then daubed in the form of a cross on the
Many Catholics see this practice as a means of publicly showing their
faith and leave the smudge on their forehead throughout Ash Wednesday.
In other countries, such as Spain, Italy and parts of Latin America, the
prevailing custom seems to be sprinkling fairly dry ashes on the crown
of the head. But even within these geographical areas, both customs are
practiced and there may be other legitimate traditions as well.
The most important thing is to live the rite according to its true
meaning. As No. 125 of the Directory for Popular Piety says:
"The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the
need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being a merely
external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that
attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during
Lent. The faithful who come to receive ashes should be assisted in
perceiving the implicit internal significance of this act, which
disposes them towards conversion and renewed Easter commitment."
* * *
Follow-up: Laypeople Distributing Ashes [2-19-2008]
Our response to a Scottish reader regarding a layperson distributing
ashes (Feb. 5) prompted another e-mail. A correspondent suggested that I
had responded inadequately by referring to the "Shorter Book of
Blessings" whose norms apply only to the United States and not to
Our reader has a valid point. The American "Book of Blessings," from
which the Shorter Book is extracted, is approved by the Holy See and its
use is obligatory in the United States.
As is permitted for a book of this nature, the volume contains some
original blessings adapted to the pastoral needs of the country and not
found in the original Latin benedictional.
These other blessings, among which is the blessing of ashes outside of
Mass, have legal currency only in the country for which they have been
approved. Priests and laypeople should use the translation of the Book
of Blessings adopted by their own conferences.
As the 2001 instruction "Liturgiam Authenticam" states in No. 83: "As
regards the editions of liturgical books prepared in vernacular
languages, the approbation of the Conference of Bishops as well as the 'recognitio'
of the Apostolic See are to be regarded as valid only for the territory
of the same Conference, so that these editions may not be used in
another territory without the consent of the Apostolic See, except in
those particular circumstances mentioned above, in nn. 18 and 76, and in
keeping with the norms set forth there."
All the same, one may use any approved translation if giving a blessing
in third-language countries, for example, giving a blessing to an
English speaker in Germany.
In some cases it is probably also possible to use the original blessings
for similar pastoral situation, such as the blessings for parents after
Regarding the use of laypeople to distribute ashes in Scotland, we may
say the following: The Holy See's approval of the American Blessings
Book means that, in principle at least, laypeople may be called upon to
carry out this function.
The approval, however, only covers the United States, and only the
Scottish bishops may legislate for Scotland.
If they have not done so (and I confess that my efforts to find out have
met with failure), then the permission cannot be presumed.
We are in a situation analogous to other special permissions, such as
extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, female altar servers, and
Communion in the hand. In principle, universal law permits all of these
but it falls to the corresponding local authority to decide whether they
may be legitimately exercised.