QUAERITUR: ashes for infants

From a priest reader:

Dear Father Z.

The "mad dash" for ashes has begun here.  A question I have, that you  may know the answer to or at least have an opinion of, is, does it  make sense to impose ashes on infants or toddlers (ie –  those who do  not yet have an awareness of sin)?  Aren’t the ashes an exterior sign  that implies an interior desire for repentance? 

But, on the other  hand, is there any merit to imposing ashes on the very young for the  "teaching moment", or for the immersion into the Catholic heritage and  culture that it brings?

I know, there are several questions there.  Answer as many or few as  you wish.

You raise good points, Father.

Since this is a sacramental and not a sacrament, I think we can have some leeway.

You are right that, from the point of view of the sacramental and what it represents, there is little point to imposing ashes on an infant.

On the other hand, our Catholic identity is rooted in more than what we grasp from the light of reason.  Deep memories and emotions, implanted impressions, also play their role.

I have had several discussions with older converts who, entirely independently, make the observation that adult converts really aren’t quite "Catholic" until they have been a practicing for some 15-20 years.  It may be that it takes that long for things to sink in, settle in at the root of your mind, at your starting points of which you may not be consciously aware as you view the world and make decisions.

Hmmm… that was pretty good.  I am also reminded that some books are deeply Catholic, not because they deal with priests and stuff, but because of the world view in the book, which might remain unexpressed in an explicit way.

In that case, there is something to be said about imposing ashes on the very young, as you suggest.

Another practical point: It is worth doing it simply to avoid the ridiculous discussions you will have to have if you don’t.  Inevitably some anxious mom will be upset that junior didn’t get the ashes, especially because they are so cute with that smudge, etc. Who cares if it "means something".  No reason involved,… just emotion you can’t possibly address.

Though I am being a little facetious…. well… not too facetious really… there is another point to consider.

Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday seem to be big days, especially because people "get something".  But not only that, they get to go forward to the rail (in traditional circumstances) and get something.  I have spoken with a number of folks who are unable to receive Holy Communion for one reason or another.  On a very deep level it is important for them to go forward to the rail, with everyone else, and receive them precisely what everyone else gets.  Even in those places where a blessing is given at Communion time, they still are getting the same thing as everyone else.

In any event, your question was good and its raises interesting points about the ineffable consequences of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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38 Responses to QUAERITUR: ashes for infants

  1. ckdexterhaven says:

    I took my 1 y/o up with me to get ashes. I have to hold him, so he might as well! It’s been a while since I’ve had an infant, I forgot what happens. After I got the ashes, he had the funniest look on his face. Like, “Mom, what is on your face???”. He kept staring at me.

  2. Ken says:

    My two and a half year old nephew received ashes today — and I fully support it based on one of the reasons above: he will remember it.

    The kid takes note of everything. As he grows up, knowing the tradition of a priest saying “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” while putting ashes on his little forehead is a great sacramental to get to know, like holding a rosary or blessing one’s self with holy water. When he hits the age of reason, he’ll be ready.

  3. kat says:

    I just wish that I had the same opportunity to take my 5 kiddos to Ash Wednesday Mass, the only ones in the local parishes offered Mass before my kids got up or after they went to bed (7:30am and 7:30pm). Maybe next year we can go to the Shrine in DC, but at 9mo preggo I am not risking going into labor and be an hour METRO ride and a 4 block walk from my car.

  4. crazylikeknoxes says:

    I’m glad this was asked as I will at mass this evening with infants/toddlers and it had crossed my mind whether or not it would be appropriate for them to receive ashes.

    From a child’s perspective, I think it is good for them to receive the ashes simply because they want to participate and belong. (This disposition in young children should be enjoyed as long as lasts, because it doesn’t last.) Being included really does mean something to a child.

    But is there any point to it in a wider sacramental sense? I bless my infant with holy water and make the toddlers cross themselves when entering a church, as well as bow before the altar and kneel before the tabernacle. Likely, they don’t understand these practices much more or less than they would the reception of ashes. But you have to start somewhere.

  5. Ken says:

    Kat — There were/are several traditional diocesan options in the Archdiocese of Washington and Diocese of Arlington:

    1) 7 a.m. at Saint John’s in Front Royal, Va.; 2) 7:30 a.m. at Holy Spirit in Annandale, Va; 3) 11:10 a.m. in the Lourdes chapel of the Basilica Shrine in Washington, D.C.; 4) 12 noon at Saint Lawrence in Franconia, Va.; 5) 12:30 p.m. at Holy Trinity in Gainesville, Va.; 6) 7:30 p.m. at Saint Mary’s in Washington, D.C.; and 7) 7:30 p.m. at Saint John’s in McLean, Va.

  6. Richard A says:

    Golly, I understood everything you said until you used that hard word, “ineffable”. That rendered all you said ineffable.

  7. Nathan says:

    Fr. Zuhlsdorf: “Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday seem to be big days, especially because people “get something”. But not only that, they get to go forward to the rail (in traditional circumstances) and get something. I have spoken with a number of folks who are unable to receive Holy Communion for one reason or another. On a very deep level it is important for them to go forward to the rail, with everyone else, and receive them precisely what everyone else gets.”

    I can sympathize with the wonderment of good priests who get a little frustrated with the “freebie” attitude regarding ashes. I’m sure you know, but perhaps it might help to remember that, as long as the most callous, worldly, semi-practicing layperson avails themselves of these sacramentals, Our Lord keeps the door open for genuine repentance and conversion, even years down the road. With young children, maybe the graces and the example will lead them to the Faith, even if they are not in a situation where they receive a full education regarding it.

    God bless our priests–the harvest is great, but the workers are few.

    In Christ,

  8. John H. says:

    adult converts really aren’t quite “Catholic” until they have been a practicing for some 15-20 years

    Father, I know you did not say this intending it to be taken literally. Still, it seems to me that we ought not to speak in this way about our prodigal brethren. They are Catholic the moment they are received into the Church, and we ought to treat them and speak of them as such IMO. [Perhaps you didn’t quite get what I was driving at.]

  9. Nathan says:

    John H., as a convert I can attest to the wisdom of Father’s statement. Of course we are Catholic from the moment we enter the Church, with all the responsibilities and privileges of a cradle Catholic. What I think he meant is that, for us converts, it takes us 15-20 years to think like a Catholic, especially in terms of Catholic culture.

    I was received into the Church in 1980, and I’m still working on adopting the “view of the world” that a cradle Catholic receives from early childhood.

    In Christ,

  10. John H. says:

    Inevitably some anxious mom will be upset that junior didn’t get the ashes, especially because they are so cute with that smudge, etc. Who cares if it “means something”. No reason involved,… just emotion you can’t possibly address.

    Father, again this seems uncharitable to me. [Perhaps you go looking for things to pick at. Great day for it, huh? o{]:¬) ] For every major Solemnity in the East, my children are anointed with holy oil in the form of a cross on their foreheads. Are you honestly suggesting that a child, who is for all intents and purposes, sinless in view of their Baptism and possesses the Three Theological virtues, cannot receive grace from sacramentals? I get the sense from you, based on this answer and the answer you provided regarding children at Mass, that you do not enjoy working with children or their parents. If I am wrong on this, then I apologize. [Thanks in advance for the apology.]

  11. Jim Dorchak says:

    The priest said to me ASHES TO ASHES / DUST TO DUST you shall return.

    Do infants / children not return to dust when they (Their Bodies) die?

    My son did when he died at 3 years old.

    They then should be allowed to recieve.

    Jim Dorchak

  12. Dahler says:

    Scruple Alert: If the ashes are a sacramental and sacramentals are to be burned/buried when disposed of–what about when we wash those ashes down the sink later at the end of the day? Is it ok for them to go down the sewer? Did I miss out on the protocol for washing off ashes? Sorry, this doesn’t have anything to do w/babies. [No… no problem there. Don’t worry about washing off, or rubbing off the ashes.]

  13. Edward Martin says:

    “adult converts really aren’t quite “Catholic” until they have been a practicing for some 15-20 years”

    As a six year ago convert I am praying that a daily dose of WDTPRS will speed up the process.

    My wife was a cradle Catholic but it was not until we were faced with a medical crisis nearly three years ago that our hearts and minds began the journey to become truly Catholic.

    We shall be at Mass this evening with a three and seven year-old in tow.

  14. mom in baltimore says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for posting your response to this question. Now I feel more comfortable about allowing my 5 year old daughter to receive ashes this evening. I know she doesn’t fully understand the sacramental but I don’t want to discourage any of her wonderment or enthusiasm no matter how childish. Her 2 year old brother will likely do the same mostly because he insists on doing whatever his big sister does.

    And I was surprised but grateful about your comment about converts taking 15-20 years to feel truly Catholic. I was received into the church in 2000 and still so much feels so new to me. Every year, every feast day, every holiday, etc. I must read and research to try and really “get it”. The Church has so many treasures to offer that it’ll probably take me longer than 20 years to finally stop feeling like a newbie.

    Thanks for all your work, Fr. Z!

  15. Christa says:

    Well, it’s nice to know that I might really feel Catholic when I am 72!

    LOL!

  16. kat says:

    Ken, “There were/are several traditional diocesan options in the Archdiocese of Washington and Diocese of Arlington:

    1) 7 a.m. at Saint John’s in Front Royal, Va.; 2) 7:30 a.m. at Holy Spirit in Annandale, Va; 3) 11:10 a.m. in the Lourdes chapel of the Basilica Shrine in Washington, D.C.; 4) 12 noon at Saint Lawrence in Franconia, Va.; 5) 12:30 p.m. at Holy Trinity in Gainesville, Va.; 6) 7:30 p.m. at Saint Mary’s in Washington, D.C.; and 7) 7:30 p.m. at Saint John’s in McLean, Va.”

    Yes, and did I mention that I am 9 mo pregnant? I was not going to get up at 6am/go out at 6pm and fight DC traffic with 5 little kids or get on the METRO and be far away from my car to attend Ash Wednesday Mass. It is not reasonable and not a Holy Day of Obligation. I called around to the NO parishes in my area as well, but in vain.

    “It certainly was a lot easier to be Catholic before I had all these kids.”

  17. crazylikeknoxes says:

    It took me a minute to find it, but the following observation from Tertullian seemed relevant to this discussion (with respect to both cradle Catholics and adult converts): “Fiunt, non nascuntur Christiani.” Apol. XVIII.4 (“Christians are made, not born.”)

  18. nathan says:

    Isn’t today a day for remembering where we have come from and where we are going. A day to resolve to repent and follow God’s teachings more closely. I think that it would be good for children to learn that humility at any early age. Just like learning how to bless themselves with holy water and kneeling at adoration.

    I heard that ashes in any Catholic church today, is open to all, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, for we all will die – is that true?

  19. Erin says:

    Nathan, any baptized Christian may receive ashes.

    source: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/prayers/view.cfm?id=734

  20. Victor says:

    What about non-baptized people? In our catholic student community, there is a girl who is not baptized, yet interested and very open for the faith. This evening, she went up and received the ashes with us (of course she does not receive the Eucharist). Is this ok or forbidden?

  21. Ken says:

    Kat — My point in listing the seven options for ashes and TLMs in the Washington, D.C. area was not to say you should have risked life to go to one, but rather to clarify that there were/are several options for others that are not just early in the morning or in the evening as you implied.

  22. Erin says:

    Victor, a google search turned this up, which seems accurate to me:

    Who may receive ashes on Ash Wednesday?
    May baptized non-Catholics receive ashes, or is such only for Catholics?

    The Code of Canon Law, canon 1170 prescribes:

    Can. 1170 Blessings which are to be imparted first of all to Catholics, can also be given to catechumens and even to non-Catholics unless there is a prohibition of the Church to the contrary.

    This canon is under the section on sacramentals. While we know that non-Catholics cannot have access to Catholic sacraments, except for a just cause under various circumstances, sacramentals may be more widely participated in by others. Ashes are considered by the Church a sacramental. Therefore, the imposition of ashes upon non-Catholics falls under canon 1170.

    According to this canon, such blessings may be given to non-Catholics unless prohibited elsewhere by law. There is no such prohibition in liturgical law, but there is a restriction. The Book of Blessings says:

    The season of Lent begins with the ancient practice of marking the baptized with ashes as a public and communal sign of penance (no. 1656).

    Ashes may be imposed upon baptized non-Catholics, but not unbaptized persons. Persons not yet regenerated through the Sacrament of Baptism cannot, properly speaking, do penance, nor can they share in the “communal” aspect of the sign. Baptism is the gateway to the community of God’s faithful people.

    Lastly, while sacraments can only be administered by Catholic ministers to members of the Catholic faithful alone (canon 844), blessings of various
    kinds can be imparted to objects, homes, animals, etc. It is easily seen, then, that blessings can be ministered to persons as well, whether Catholic or otherwise.
    http://www.cuf.org/News/newsdetail.asp?newID=30

  23. priest up north says:

    This year I am doing something different (at least after one Mass this morning)…Having had one of those “why didn’t you give the two year old ashes?” complaints last year, I decided this year that I will ask the parent who is holding or dragging (as is sometimes the case) a child toward the front if they would like ashes on their child’s head, in spite of the momentary delay. We will see what the end result is of this attempt to be “pastorally sensitive.”

  24. Victor says:

    Thanks, Erin – you’re very quick!

  25. Clara says:

    On the subject of converts and being really “Catholic” — doubtless it is true that a fully Catholic worldview sinks in only gradually, such that an older convert could look back and see how they had changed/grown over time. But I would add that we should hardly assume that all cradle Catholics have a fully Catholic perspective. We don’t live in a predominantly Catholic society, and particularly given the state of our liturgy these days, it seems fair to assume that many/most Catholics have a less than fully “Catholic” perspective. Converts may have a better appreciation of the contrasts since they can remember a time when they weren’t Catholic in any way.

    That’s not to say that cradle Catholics don’t have certain natural advantages. As a convert, I *do* find it irksome when (as occasionally happens) people try to use my convert status as a kind of trump card in an argument about a theological or liturgical issue, as in, “Well, probably you can’t really understand this because you’re just a convert.” It’s never nice to try to cut short a heated debate with privileged knowledge claims, and as a convert it’s hard not to be a little sensitive to any implication that I don’t *really* belong here. In the end, though, the best thing would be to recognize that we bring different things to the Body of Christ according to our different strengths and perspectives. Cradle Catholics (at least if they are well brought up) can have a kind of completeness to their Catholic worldview that we converts simply lack. It takes a cradle Catholic to make a Pope Benedict or a St. Therese of Lisieux. But converts, because they chose their faith and probably made sacrifices for it from the outset, have a characteristic zeal, and a particular sort of awareness of the preciousness of that gift that cradle Catholics may not completely capture. It takes a convert to make a St. Paul or a GK Chesterton.

  26. Fr B says:

    In the Ordinary Form the priest has a choice as to what he says when he distributes the ashes.

    Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
    OR
    Repent and believe in the Gospel.

    Now, saying Repent and believe in the Gospel to a baptised child below the age of reason makes little sense. However Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return could fittingly be addressed to all human beings since the Fall. (Our Lord and Our Lady excluded, of course.)

    The ashes symbolise both repentance and mortality – and I would have no reservation applying ashes on any baby who was presented to me. That being said, I certainly found it quite a solemn and sombre moment when I said the words Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. over a little baby.

  27. Ken says:

    Fr B — you point out the flaw in many novus ordo “blessings.” Better to use the traditional Roman Ritual. For everything.

  28. Fr B says:

    Ken – with all due respect, it wasn’t my intention to make such a general criticism and in some contexts the prayer Repent and believe in the Gospel seems more fitting.

    (That being said, I’m not a huge fan of the newer Book of Blessings.)

  29. Kevin in Texas says:

    Just a note of thanks to Clara for your last post above–beautiful sentiments on converts and cradle Catholics, and in a way I had never considered the issue before. As a cradle Catholic with now non-practicing father, I wish and pray that he, and many of my close Protestant friends and famil, could experience the zeal of the on-fire convert.

    God bless!

  30. Miguel says:

    I wonder if our priest read this post earlier today?

    My three year old and I went to a 7 p.m. Mass tonight for Ash Wednesday…we both went up to the railing, I kneeled, of course, but the little guy stood on the kneeler to have a better look at the altar. I got my ashes and the priest passed him over, then hesitated, turned around and applied them to my boy. It made me happy to share this moment with him and he was very interested to see my ashes, so I consider it a teaching moment, really.

  31. Nicandro says:

    Miguel, Your priest sounds insightful to issues and judges well. How attitudes have changed since Vatican ii. I was an unusually small boy and not long after my first communion 1971 I presented myself at the rail. Not being tall enough, I stepped forward instead of kneeling, which was preposterous as I barely came up to it, I stood in my ignorance and need. The priest, pushed me off the rail in irritation and I fell backwards. My mother was horrified wrote to the Bishop. The poor man in question had some problems with introduction of new practices back then and let them cloud his judgement. I still pray for him like I pray for all who comment in partisan terms that over the issue of the liturgy and Vatican ii. Funny that it seems to be liberals pushing people away now. Pray for them too all.
    God bless you Fr Z for moderating these issues well.

  32. crazylikeknoxes says:

    Clara: Good comments. I’ve always thought of the Church as a country of sorts, with the cradle Catholics being native born and the converts being immigrants. Like you said, the convert/immigrant generally has a “greater appreciation for the contrasts,” as well as of the privilege of citizenship in the new country, that the native born may take for granted.

    I also wonder, among the many “Catholic” politicians who so regularly take exception to the Church’s teachings, what percentage of them are cradle Catholics and who are the converts.

  33. Clara says:

    That’s a good analogy, Crazylikeknoxes. I like it.

    I have to think that the great majority of lapsed or heretical Catholics are cradle Catholics. You generally don’t take the Church for granted like that if you’ve traveled a long way to get there.

  34. kat says:

    Ken,
    Sorry if I took it the wrong way, chalk it up to hormones. You did miss one TLM Ash Wednesday Mass: 7:30am at Our Lady Queen of Poland in Silver Spring, MD

    Maybe next year we can all get ashes, including the one about to be born!

  35. Megan says:

    “adult converts really aren’t quite “Catholic” until they have been a practicing for some 15-20 years”

    Being a convert of 10 years this upcoming Easter (thanks be to God!), in all honesty, I have to agree with this. In my *heart* I’m thoroughly Catholic–as I am in official status and have been for these 10 years. However, my mind is just now beginning really to function fluidly in this world. It was a vastly deeper and more complex worldview that I plunged into than I had ever imagined. I had been various types of Protestant, and I had no idea that the view of the world from a Catholic perspective is immensely different from the Protestant view. No one ever tells us converts about that. If we’re fortunate, we hear about the doctrine and are able to see a clear distinction in beliefs, but it isn’t until we’re “thrown into the deep end” that we finally grasp the fact that the world has just changed for us. It looks different; it feels different. *Everything* has shifted. It’s beautiful and invigorating in a way the world never was before–but very, very different. I fully embraced everything that the Church teaches from the time of my confirmation (and before), but I am only now beginning to realize that I’m thinking with the mind of the Church more and more. It’s slowly becoming natural for me, and I’m no longer having to exert a herculean effort every single day to make things fall into place. I think I’ve come far enough now to see where I was and also to see how very much farther I need to go. I’m not there yet, but please God, one day I will be. Maybe in another 5-10 years. In the meantime, I’ll just continue being grateful beyond words that Our Lord opened the door.

  36. Sam says:

    I was wondering the same thing last night with my 17 month old and my 3 month old — Would they, should they (sorry Dr Seuss) get ashes? After thinking about it, I agree that they shouldn’t get ashes until they reach the age of reason (7 if memory serves me) since they aren’t aware of sin until then and therefore have no reason to convert from it. However, the only argument I can think of in favor of doing so even before the age of reason comes from the reminder “Remember man, that thou are dust and until dust thou shalt return.” Even at a young age, we all need to be reminded of our eventual deaths. As a Dad who would ache with pain at the death of either of my two kids, such a practice would be a good reminder for me not to hold on to them forever and to realize that they are only on loan from God to my wife and I.

  37. crazylikeknoxes says:

    Megan: Sort of like the last chapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress when John looks back again over the road he has traveled? (If you are familiar with that one.)

    Sam: I wouldn’t over-estimate the connection between being able to reason and feeling contrition. The ability to reason, for me anyway, can be as much of a hindrance as a help.

  38. Greg Smisek says:

    As a point of reference, what was done prior to 1970? Were young children (not yet communicants) brought up to receive ashes? Everywhere, nowhere, in some places, by some people?