ROME, 13 MARCH 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q1: On Ash Wednesday is it appropriate for young children to receive the ashes? The formula "Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel," implies the recipient is capable of committing sin. We normally consider this to be at the age of reason, that is, 7 years of age. Parents often bring up small children, from babes in arms, to toddlers, to 4-5-year olds, and want them to receive the ashes. Is this appropriate, given that the children might have no understanding of what is involved? — E.K., Toronto
Q2: A question arose on Ash Wednesday: Are there any limits as to distribution; i.e., who may properly receive ashes? Can non-Catholics and baptized infants receive? Are there any norms for distributing blessed ashes and where are they? The assumption was that anyone could receive regardless of age or religious affiliation. Is this correct? — S.M., Indianapolis, Indiana
A: The rules regarding imposition of ashes are scant, to say the least, and do not seem to put any particular limitations as to who may receive them.
The rubrics of the missal simple say that "the Priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him …."
The Congregation for Divine Worship published a circular letter regarding these celebrations in 1988. Regarding Ash Wednesday it says:
"21. 'On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, the faithful receive the ashes, thus entering into the time established for the purification of their souls. This sign of penance, a traditionally biblical one, has been preserved among the Church's customs until the present day. It signifies the human condition of the sinner, who seeks to express his guilt before the Lord in an exterior manner, and by so doing express his interior conversion, led on by the confident hope that the Lord will be merciful. This same sign marks the beginning of the way of conversion, which is developed through the celebration of the sacraments of penance during the days before Easter.'
"The blessing and imposition of ashes should take place either in the Mass or outside of the Mass. In the latter case, it is to be part of a liturgy of the word and conclude with the prayer of the faithful."
Although it is clear that young children have no need to repent nor to do penance, I would see no reason to refuse to impose ashes if their parents present them. This act can serve as a means of forming them in Catholic traditions just as they will teach them to make the sign of the cross and will often bring them to Mass several years before their first Holy Communion.
On Ash Wednesday many people, including numerous irregularly practicing Catholics, request the imposition of ashes. There is no good reason to refuse anyone, and indeed this gesture might light a spark of repentance.
I believe that most Protestants, above all evangelicals, would never dream of making use of a Catholic sacramental. Episcopalians and some others, however, who might not be near one of their own churches might decide to receive at a Catholic service.
Since receiving ashes is a sign of penance and does not necessarily imply communion of faith, I think that this sign could be granted even if the priest knew that they were not Catholics.
In short, I think the best practice is to simply trust the good faith of those requesting the imposition of ashes and not worry about their motivation or provenance.
Unlike the case of receiving Communion it is unlikely that any harm can come from receiving ashes, and sometimes God can use these moments to produce much good.
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Follow-up: Ashes for Children and Non-Catholics [3-27-2012]
In the March 13 piece on Ash Wednesday I commented "that most Protestants, above all evangelicals, would never dream of making use of a Catholic sacramental. Episcopalians and some others, however, who might not be near one of their own churches might decide to receive at a Catholic service."
Several readers wrote in to inform me that, in fact, there are some evangelical Christians who are adopting this tradition.
One, a permanent deacon, wrote: "I am currently appointed to two small churches in a small town. When I was first appointed I received a call from the pastor of the First Baptist Church inviting me to join their ecumenical group doing projects for the betterment of the community. Currently we have one Catholic and seven Protestant churches in the group. This Ash Wednesday a lady pastor of a Baptist church was asked to fill in for the lady pastor of the First Congregational Church in giving out ashes. She was pretty nervous, and soon discovered that lightning did not strike her, and she survived. I also have a friend that attends a Reformed outreach church. They have given ashes out for the last two years."
A priest from New York added: "A quick note — that here in New York City, several, perhaps many, Protestant churches are now holding Ash Wednesday services, including distribution of ashes. Walking just three blocks, from the subway and past our Catholic church, I saw two Protestant churches with signs for Ash Wednesday service — one was Disciples of Christ and the other was Presbyterian. So, the value of sacramentals is being appreciated — a mini-ecumenical movement?!"
We also had reports of Protestants requesting ashes from a Catholic Church in Jerusalem.
Who would have thought that this ancient tradition could become a means of bringing Christians closer together? It is certainly a sign of hope.