Ashes for the unabashedly Catholic

View Photo Gallery: Millions of Catholics and Protestants have the sign of the cross placed on their foreheads as Ash Wednesday … Continued

View Photo Gallery: Millions of Catholics and Protestants have the sign of the cross placed on their foreheads as Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.

Ash Wednesday, the day to be unabashedly Catholic, is February 13. It’s the day when a smudge on the forehead, for those who understand it, means I’ll try to be better. I’ll do what Lent asks: more prayer, more sacrifice, more almsgiving.

Those who administer ashes on another’s brow can use either a formula emphasizing hope: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” or one of stark reality: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Anecdotal reports say there are more Catholics in church on Ash Wednesday, which is not a holy day of obligation, than on Sunday, which is. Is it because Ash Wednesday comes but once a year? Some clergy will administer ashes at train stations for those on the run, assuaging their guilt for not getting to church and letting them call home to say, “Hey, Mom. Guess where I got ashes today?”

Even if other Christian denominations – including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians –also celebrate Ash Wednesday, sporting ashes seems especially prominent among Catholics. In fact, it is one of those signs of Catholic identity that people notice on the street and in the workplace.

Does wearing ashes suggest people seek to publicly identify with the church even when they find it hard to get to weekly Mass? Does it touch the need for community inherent in human beings, especially in a world which prizes individualism? “See, I’m one with you, fellow smudged forehead, whoever you are.”

If you watch TV, you’ll see public figures with ashes. This drives up the wall virulent critics of government who see politicians as on retainer to Satan. “How can they wear ashes?” they shout at the TV set.

Sacramentals, including ashes, rosaries, medals, holy water – material things that are blessed and remind us of God – have a special place in the Catholic community. Even Catholics who eschew religion on their sleeve often carry a rosary in their pockets. Just holding it can provide a comforting sense of the presence of God. A medal of a patron saint provides a sense of a special friend being with you. A statue in a room can catch your gaze in a quiet moment. These materials objects touch our emotional side, a vital part of the human person. We can rationalize about God, the uncreated Creator who began it all. We can be proud of the physical bodies by whom people recognize us – tall, short, blonde, brunette, Asian, African American. We live by the soul which gives us life. And all of this supports our emotional side, where we connect with another, often wordlessly with a smile, a frown, the look of understanding.

The sacramentals feed that emotional side. Ash Wednesday does so especially. We can feel a little funny with ashes on our foreheads, but for Catholics, that’s how we mark the start of Lent. Ashes don’t say we’re holy. They say we’re sinners. They don’t say we’re perfect, only that we’re willing to try. They don’t say we’re models of religiosity, but they do say we belong. In today’s world of loners and isolates, that says a lot.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh is Director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Written by

  • lordbyron

    “Ashes don’t say we’re holy. They say we’re sinners.”
    Nicely put. And nice article.
    I wear mine with pride.

  • MadDogAZ

    Beautifully written article. Thanks for writing it.

  • PostNoBills

    Amen, Sister!


    Sister Mary Ann, who is not a sinner? Ashes is another sign of RCC administration’s many controls on the RCs. If a RC is seen without ashes on the forehead today, what does that say?

  • SHAPE88

    It says that we couldn’t get to church before work nothing more.

  • nkri401


    If you say you are a sinner, I don’t know you enough to agree or not. And if a bit of ash makes you feel better from the torment you feel from your sins, seems like more cost effective than expensive drug therapy.

    However, that you are a sinner does not mean I am also. This is a very important point because if you think I am a sinner, because you are a sinner, then you are beginning to project. And if this become obsessive, like wanting to put ash on a passer by then you will need psychiatric help.

    Peace and Godspeed…

  • nkri401

    Proud to be a sinner??

    You know, pride is one of the mortal sins…

    Is there an infinite recursion here somewhere?

  • NeilAllen1

    God has made it clear that the Catholic church isn’t God’s church, and it isn’t even a Christian church.

    They practice rampant child rape, making children think they were being raped by “Christ on earth”, which is what priests call themselves. They lie about it, move known pedophiles, hide known pedophiles, and fight the victims of child rape, who were God’s most innocent children.

    They get parishioners to believe the lie that “its just as bad everywhere”, but they’re lying. The Catholic church admitted 4,392 substantiated, accused, child sex abusing priests in their own John Jay report of 2004, and no institution in history is even close to this number. That was 4%, but it was 8-9% in the 70s and 80s, and that’s just the ones they admitted.

    Worst of all, they did it in God’s name, and did it to protect pedophiles and to protect their filthy riches.

    If Jesus was here today, and saw the pope with a $100,000 hat that could be sold to save the 14,000 people that will starve to death this week, what do you think Jesus would do?

    The Catholic church isn’t God’s church. Catholics will be completely covered with ashes for eternity.

  • Hudman1

    In my case, it says that I long ago *fired* the Catholic Church from its role as mediator of the relationship between myself and my God. And good riddance to it.

  • cz_man

    Likewise, Sacrementals can be received by excommunicated Catholics, whereas more traditional sacraments (such as Pennance/Reconiclliation) cannot.

    Thus you have the excommunicated coming into church. Which is kind of nice.

    (Excommunicated by order of the Pope)

  • Thomas of Menotomy

    So I’m guessing you won’t be watching coverage of the conclave?

  • di89

    Some clergy will administer ashes at train stations for those on the run, assuaging their guilt for not getting to church and letting them call home to say, “Hey, Mom. Guess where I got ashes today?”

    Really? In a religious column?

    If it bothers you on theological or pastoral grounds that sacramentals can be provided in non-traditional locations, meeting people halfway in their modern lives, then come out and say so. If you believe that nobody deserves to participate besides those who remember ahead of time and are able to rearrange their work and/or travel schedules accordingly, then come out and say so. If you would prefer that we live in a Catholic-centered culture so the whole world will accommodate Mass schedules (like public school kids used to get released from school and brought to CCD on public school buses) then come out and say so.

    But don’t slam everyone giving and getting them on the way to work and school and say they’re just doing it as a stunt.

  • nkri401

    I put on the mascara; what does that say? Certainly I’m not saying I’m a sinner.

  • Top8305

    Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?” Jn 6:70

    “their own John Jay report of 2004” shows that more than 80% of victims were teenage boys and young men. In 2011, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia revealed it was involved in another major “roundup” of sex abuse cases… a majority of them (82%) involved the orginal category of identified victims – male teens and young men.

    John Jay report: “four out of five (80%) alleged victims were male” and “the majority of alleged victims were post-pubescent (87.4%), with only a small percentage of priests receiving allegations of abusing young children.

    Logical deduction (not hysterical, hate-ridden anti-Catholic, anti-clerical tripe): the Church must screen out clergy with SAME-SEX ATTRACTION.

    2004: The National Review Board stated that while the sex abuse had no single cause (not considering the Evil One as a cause), “an understanding of the crisis is not possible” without reference to “THE PRESENCE OF HOMOSEXUALLY ORIENTED PRIESTS.”, citing the data: “eighty percent of the abuse at issue was of a HOMOSEXUAL NATURE.”

    Dr. Paul McHugh, a former psychiatrist-in-chief at John Hopkins Hospital (member, National Review Board) stated the JJ study revealed a crisis of “HOMOSEXUAL PREDATION ON AMERICAN CATHOLIC YOUTH.”

    The JJ data reveals that a very small contingent of clergy did most of the sexual exploiting, and they overwhelmingly chose same-sex victims.

    Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons the study “avoided discussing important casual factors in clerical sex abuse cases, namely homosexuality.”

    The data from this travesty of these abuse victims overwhelmingly indentifies the main victim of the sex abuse crisis as young men, by men who were all Judas.

    The Goodness of the Catholic Church draws attacks from Evil. Evil attempts to destroy Good, by definition; doesn’t everyone know that, regardless of faith tradition (atheistic, agnostic or otherwise)?

    Don’t be blind.
    God Have Mercy

  • Secular1

    I am glad to note that there are several folks who are disdainful of wearing those superstitious ashes and all in the public. Especially when a lot of them feel that it reflects on the wearer being superstitious, is good news. That even, the so called believers are realizing that lot of these rituals and symbols are just superstitions is a good thing. The ms. Boorstein laments that many a believer feels pressured by the secular society from wearing the silly ashes on their forehead. Where were this woman’s laments when every politician was most verbally abused to wear the flag on their lapels and demogogued. Trust me the most of those demogoging were the same people the so called believers. At least no one is standing in the streets and looking at the people with the silly, superstitious ashes on the forehead and shaking their heads. So enough of this feigning of oppression. She must be thankful that there isn’t secularists standing there on the streets with wet wipes volunteering to wipe the ashed of the fore heads of folks, who were forced in their homes to wear them before leaving for work or just going out of ehe house. Instead we have this clown in the gown, totally unhindered by anyone is able to peddle his silly wares. The idea that she chooses to complain is the height of her and her ilk’s sense of entitlement. Enough already you believers of fairy tales STOP WHINING, get on with your life. If that means you cannot force feed us with your superstition, just smile and swallow it.

  • tony55398

    God is infinitely more forgiving and compassionate than anyone can imagine. Really true.

  • Bluefish2012

    Very true, but if we don’t choose to accept God’s infinite forgiveness and turn our lives around, He doesn’t force us to accept it. Such folks aren’t condemned to hell, they freely choose it.

  • Bluefish2012

    Uh, about Penance–not true. Making a good confession is precisely the way to remove the indignity of excommunication. There is always hope as long as we are alive.

  • Bluefish2012

    Why so cynical, nkri401?

    One does not need to project to understand that to one degree or another, all men are sinners. Our fallen nature guarantees it. Ashes don’t make a person “feel better.” That characterization misses the point. Rather, it reflects humility–and not false humility either–but an acknowledgment that we miss the mark sometimes and resolve to do better.

  • Bluefish2012

    So, if you are Christian you reject the Church that Christ is building out of men who are “earthen vessels.” See Mt 16:18. Going it alone is a lonely road to nowhere.

  • Bluefish2012

    nkri, pride has two meanings, just like anger does (one is simply an emotion; the other reflects deliberately harmful rage). Look up “pride” in any good dictionary. lordbyron is using the word differently than your facile statement interprets it.

  • patriot1

    You must be one of Satan’s legions.

  • patriot1

    Everyone is a sinner. There are sins of omission and commisson.

  • patriot1

    I don’t feel “funny” wearing ashes. I follow Jesus who is my Lord and Savior. Thr Christian churches gave ashes , long before the liberals made it politically incorrect to have them. If you deny Jesus, He will deny you before His Father. In the final analysis there is either Heaven or Hell. Jesus let’s us choose. He does not condemn us, we do it ourselves.

  • patriot1

    To nkri401: You obviously have a hatred for the Catholic Church or Chrisitanity in general. You must have something you believe in, be it your country, family, or something else. How would you enjoy it, if someone vilified what you love? You enjoy attacking people that bellieve in Jesus. Do you know everything, or are you an ignoramous that thinks he does? I bet you profess to be a liberal and tolerant of everyone’s ideas as long as they agree with yours. What have you done for humanity except spew hatred and intolerance?