Laypeople Distributing Ashes

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Laypeople Distributing Ashes

ROME, 5 FEB. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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 priests present — 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? — J.P., Montreal

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 forehead.

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 Scotland.

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 a miscarriage.

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.

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