QUAERITUR: Young children receiving ashes this Wednesday.

ashesFrom a reader:

I have a three year old girl. She loves the material aspects of
Catholicism (holy cards, holy water, lighting candles, relics etc) and has a pretty good understanding of them for her age.

Can she receive ashes on Ash Wednesday? She obviously hasn’t any sin to repent of in the literal sense of the word, but we do encourage her to say sorry to Jesus every night for the littlw ways she might have been bold that day. Receiving ashes could be a useful part of the learning process for her.

Are there any official rules around the age when one can have ashes imposed on Ash Wednesday?

I don’t think there are any age rules for this.  As the child’s parent you get to make your own call about that.  If the priest is amenable, you can do this.

I would advise, however, that if the ashes are put on a bit thick on the forehead that you watch that she not get any in her eyes.

If she is old enough to say “sorry” to Jesus before bed, she is old enough to start learning with steps about penance and self-denial too, perhaps.  Of course, at that age she isn’t bound to fast or abstain, etc.

Perhaps parents can chime in with their comments about this, for they have been through these decisions.

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40 Responses to QUAERITUR: Young children receiving ashes this Wednesday.

  1. Gaz says:

    “Grant to us who call upon your holy Name, that all who are sprinkled with these ashes for the forgiveness of their sins, may receive health for their bodies and salvation for their souls.”. By the sounds of your post I think she qualifies. If you have any doubts, read through the prayers for the blessing of ashes and see if you think they may apply. (Tip: read the EF prayers). I’d go for it – only wish I was asking this question 12 years ago.

  2. cgvnau says:

    From personal experience, I’d say the big thing is whether or not she’ll hold still long enough for the priest to put the ashes on her forehead.

    Adopt A Catholic Blog

  3. Supertradmum says:

    Three is about the right age. Most children understand the significance of signs, like water, shells, sheep etc, in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at age three. If you are reading Bible stories at night and have children’s books on the Liturgical Year, then you can back up the symbolism.

    Again, if the babies in the Byzantine Church can receive the Sacraments without understanding, why can we not introduce symbolic actions early on? I have taken five and four year olds to the Easter Vigil who understood the symbolism of the Easter Candle as we watched from the outside of the Church. Either you can prepare the children before hand, or after discuss the event, or both.

  4. jkm210 says:

    My older daughter is three, turning four in May. She’s in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and is VERY EXCITED about Ash Wednesday. I think she understands it on a simple level – she’s very aware of what it means to do something wrong. I’m going to spend some time explaining to her that it makes God sad when we do things that are wrong and we need to tell him we’re sorry. As for the ashes, I’d like to see anyone try to stop her.

    Both of my kids had their throats blessed for St. Blaise’s day, too. Though for my younger, Lady Coughs-a-lot, I don’t think it took. ;-)

  5. ReginaMarie says:

    As an Eastern Catholic parent, I agree with Supertradmum. I think the earlier that children are exposed to Sacramentals & the Sacramental Mysteries, the better (with parents catechizing the child at their level of understanding). In this day & age, when our culture aims to rob children of their purity & innocence, they need those graces more than ever. I think we underestimate how spiritual children can be at a very tender, trusting & innocent level. While these quotes deal with specifically with children receiving the Holy Eucharist & not a sacramental (as are blessed ashes), I think it makes sense just the same:

    “As a mother will not deny her children “That infant & children not yet come to
    food until they understand what they eat, the use of reason may not only validly
    so too the Church will not deny the spiritual but even fruitfully receive the Blessed
    food of the Eucharist until a person understands.” Eucharist is now the universally
    (St. John Chrysostom) received opinion.” (Council of Trent)

  6. ReginaMarie says:

    Yikes…those quotes were printed side-by-side & ended up being posted as one, long, meshed- together quote…sorry! They should have read:

    “As a mother will not deny her child food until they understand what they eat, so too the Church will not deny the spiritual food of the Eucharist until a person understands.” (St. John Chrysostom)

    “That infants and children not yet come to the use of reason may not only validly but even fruitfully receive the Blessed Eucharist is now the universally received opinion.” (Council of Trent)

  7. hawkeye says:

    Both my daughters received Ashes at the first opportunity. It’s similar to us saying the Baptismal promises for them. We are acknowledging that they too are “dust and unto dust they will return.” Most priests I’ve seen are very patient. Some children will turn away because they are shy. The Ashes are also a witness to others we meet throughout the day that we are Catholic/Christian and have a belief in life everlasting. Although these young children are incapable of actual sin, they are still born with Original sin. Go for it Mom. They can do her no harm.

  8. my kidz mom says:

    I teach 2nd grade CCD. After this week’s class, a mom asked if it was ok that her son receive ashes this year; was he old enough (8)? I was surprised and said yes of course, couldn’t think of a reason for him not to, especially since he will receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation this year.

    Thank you for this blog, Father Z. It strengthens my faith daily, and helps me better articulate that faith out in my little corner of the world.

  9. MissOH says:

    Our daughter is 4 and has been receiving ashes since her first Ash Wednesday (when she was just shy of 1) and our son also started receiving from the time he was little. As others have stated, not because they were sinning as children, but just as a part of the education in their faith that I was/am trying to impart to them. Neither child ever had any problem with messing or playing with the ashes or getting them in their eyes. I think the priests at our parish try to be reasonably careful with the size and intensity of the cross for the little ones.

  10. priests wife says:

    even our sweet babies came ‘from dust and will return to dust’- so of course, they should go up to receive! Did they receive the St Blase blessing? yes- they probably do all the little extras that the Church provides.

    For people who have not received First Communion or who should not come to Eucharist for whatever reason- in the Byzantine rite, they can come up for a blessing during the Communion rite or wait and be anointed with oil if it is a feast day or have the blessed (not consecrated) bread distributed after the Liturgy. There are many ways to have a person unable to receive the Eucharist ‘participate’ and receive any sacramental- this is especially important for a person in mortal sin in hopes that they will reconcile with our Lord.

  11. priests wife says:

    Regina Marie- Thanks for the second quote- I have never seen it even though we follow it (when the little ones are behaving)

  12. KAS says:

    I think this is a practice that can be begun at the first Ash Wednesday after the child is baptized. The important thing is for the parent to talk to the child EVERY YEAR and ascertain their level of comprehension and then add to it as their capacity to understand increases.

    Parenting for Faith requires a LOT of conversation. Jesus talked with his apostles, keeping them with him nearly constantly, and we should follow his example in educating our children in the Faith.

    So begin early.

  13. Jenny bag of donuts says:

    How sweet and good to have your daughter begin the habit of making a nightly examination and act of contrition. Well, in her own precious, little way that is.

    This question makes me sad. Every parish with married couples should have lots of toddlers and little ones. That should be the norm. Then those new to parenthood could see what other families are doing. Where we live the priests and deacons put ashes on everyone, including babies. If your priest or deacon seems hesitant about doing so, it’s not your fault or necessarily theirs either. They might not be used to many littles ones in your parish. Too bad.

  14. Jaceczko says:

    My oldest is 4 and if he could receive salt on his tongue during baptism at two weeks then I’m not too worried about him receiving ashes on his forehead at four.

    Glad to know it’s licit!

  15. Rich says:

    When my son was nearly two I held him in my arms when I went to receive the ashes, and turned him toward the priest to receive his own after I had gotten mine. My son reached in wonder at the ashes on my head and lisped something inquisitively at me as if to point out that I had them. Then he realized his forehead might have looked the same and, though he couldn’t see his own, touched where he thought the ashes might be. Though he most likely may not have understood a lick about what the ashes were all about, the sacramental experience of the senses – including the sense of wonder – I think did its part to prepare his mind and soul for a sacramental life in the Church.

  16. catholicmidwest says:

    Practical advice from a mom & ex-teacher: It sounds like you have a very smart little girl. Smart little kids are sometimes quite sensitive and can develop fears that they can’t articulate, which then bother them. The ashes themselves and the procession are all fine; no harm and it sounds like she’ll love that part.
    However, I’d go light on the sturm un drung which sometimes accompanies the giving of the ashes or conversations about the ashes. Assess whether, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” is going to bother your little girl, and control how deep the conversation gets until she can articulate what she thinks and if it bothers her. Just until she’s a bit older, mind you. These thoughts about mortality are necessary but they are very mature thoughts for a 3 year old.

    PS contrary to popular belief, 3 year olds can conceive of death and such things, even if they can’t articulate very well what they conceive. This is why you should monitor what they are able to see on television and in the movies.

  17. catholicmidwest says:

    And you are right, your clever little girl is probably not yet capable of a mortal sin. Nor is she capable of discerning the depth of the meaning of the ashes, for the same reason. But go light on the drama about death and finality, ok? That she can pick up the tone of, and it may bother her.

  18. catholicmidwest says:

    my kidz mom,
    8 years old is certainly old enough. Kids can think about religious thoughts and mortality much more clearly when they are above about 6 or 7 years old, and they are much more likely to be able to articulate their thoughts. They should, of course, have had conversations about the meaning of sin and mortality by then with the adults in their lives; otherwise, I’m rather certain they’re not being raised as Catholics!

    PS, by the time even secular kids are 8, they’ve been exposed to the whole life/death/violence thing in American culture, so none of the drama about it is particularly new. Proper religious training at this point should be reassuring to them.

  19. hawkeye says:

    Remember also that ashes are a Sacramental just like Holy Water. We all bless our kids with Holy Water without giving it a second thought.

  20. Supertradmum says:

    Children understand spiritual ideas much earlier than most people think. Those above, including me, who have either taught, or been involved in the The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd know that children as young as three understand the parables, and symbols of the Sacraments.

    I was,with the children, making the parables of the Good Shepherd, the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, etc. with clothes pegs dressed up as all the characters, when these young ones were three-four. The children would listen to the Scriptures and act out with the items on the floor. At the age of four, my son asked to act out the entire Exodus, which I explained was true and not a parable. We spent days making a cast of thousands, including rams, sheep, camels and a very irritated Pharaoh in gold lame over a clothes peg. We spent no more than 3 dollars on glue, pegs and pipe cleaners. I had left over fabric. We used blue tissue paper for the parting of the Red Sea. This exercise was a great lead-up to Holy Thursday, as we ended up playing Mass with small items from the Oxfam. The connections were made.

    Children were made by God to desire the mysterious, miraculous, and the spiritual. Like understanding the Guardian Angel prayer from in utero, the children pick up on religion quickly, if given the chance. Ashes are part of the teaching, for us and for them.

  21. Gulielmus says:

    I was born in the 1950s, the youngest of five. I can remember yearning to go to the communion rail with the others during Mass as my parents took turns going up so the little ones weren’t left alone. But the blessing of throats on St Blaise’s Day, the receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and venerating the cross on Good Friday were things we were welcomed to as far back as my memory reaches, and the experiences were very powerful.

  22. momoften says:

    We have always had babies receive Ashes. We have always taught toddlers to bless themselves with Holy Water when entering the church(or at home). We are also patient to teach them to genuflect when coming into and leaving church. I take up little ones to Venerate the Cross, or relics. They love to be a part of the Catholic Community in these little ways. Parents need to encourage use of sacramentals in the family…always. It is important for the big sisters and brothers seeing it encouraged in their younger siblings, and for the little ones to see their big siblings doing it. It gives both a better reverence for sacramentals and holy things, and reverence in church.

  23. We should keep in mind here that Jesus never sinned but nevertheless took on penance for the remission of our sins, so even if this little girl has not sinned, her penitential acts no doubt would be especially pleasing to God if done in the right spirit with the right disposition. Not having sinned alone certainly should not disqualify one from receiving ashes.

  24. yatzer says:

    Last year my then 3-year-old granddaughter was highly indignant when her daddy allowed her to be passed over for ashes. She wanted to be part of the action. For her age, I think she had a good motivation.

  25. Sandra_in_Severn says:

    I grew-up with it, as did our children. Sacramentals, like Holy Water, Blessed Palms and Ashes are important outward signs, it is never too early to learn their meanings.

  26. melafwife says:

    Both our girls were babies for the first time, and our priest at the time made a tiny cross near the hairline to prevent the babies from rubbing the ashes and getting them in their eyes. Sometimes people ask me why I do “all this Catholic stuff” (her term) with my girls? I said: “Because we are still Catholic before and after Sunday Mass.” Wishing you all a blessed Lenten Season!

  27. AnAmericanMother says:

    My little ones received the ashes from a very early age – the youngest is 19 now! but I think they were around 3 years old. As soon as they could talk sensibly and understand the very basics. They were very impressed by the solemnity of the occasion – I think ritual and sacramentals are important for children – it gets through to them on a nonverbal level. Of course we always talked about these things, at the dinner table and at bedtime when they said their prayers, so I was confident that they had understanding appropriate to their age.

  28. q7swallows says:

    With children, “Do the Red” comes before “Say the Black.”

    Yes! Sacramentals early and often! Babyhood forward! Our little ones always loved being a part of any and all sacramental proceedings—including ashes on Ash Wednesday. And all are still sacramental enthusiasts—the eldest one is in college. The wisdom of the Church allows even little children to come to Him through these signs. So let the little children come unto Him!

    Each child is different, but personally, I would let most of the sacramental take place in its liturgical context (and my silence), indicating only that “WE” will receive a small gift (of ashes) from the priest like all the other people in line and that the child should watch and listen carefully in silence. In line, I would accompany the child however she is most comfortable (in arms or holding her hand). And trusting the powerful silent language of the sign itself, I would tend to only answer the questions that the child posed—as simply as possible, and to her level of understanding.

    If you want to see just how much children can absorb from experiencing one of the Church’s sacraments or sacramentals, ask them to either tell you what they saw or draw a picture for you afterward. The details they focus on will astound you.

  29. Patti Day says:

    The 3rd and 4th graders in my religious ed class have not received ashes. None of them seem even to have heard of the practice. It’s doubtful that this will be the year they first receive.
    Mom, take your little one.

  30. JGR says:

    I am so glad this subject came up! In our parish bulletin this past Sunday, along with other rules of Lent (fasting and abstinence requirements, Easter Duty, etc.) was the following note:

    “Who May Receive Ashes?
    Baptized individuals who have reached the age of reason. Babies and young children who have not yet received the Sacrament of Penance should not be presented to receive ashes since ashes are intended for those who are capable of personal sin. The observance of Ash Wednesday is intended to lead the baptized members of the Church to repentance and renewal of baptismal promises at Easter. – Archdiocese Policy”

    My husband and I were so surprised to read this! We have always taken all of our children up for ashes, and this year our 5-year-old has been very interested in our Lenten preparation, asking lots of questions, processing what he hears and sees. He was looking forward to Ash Wednesday and the symbols involved, and has already decided what sacrifice he would like to make during Lent.

    Does anyone have any idea where I might find out whether there is a basis in Church law or teaching for such a limitation? I will obey the requirement of our archdiocese, but would like to ask for a change to the policy, I think.

    Thank you!

  31. Jenny bag of donuts says:

    Andrew good point.

    Patti hang in there.

    JGR that’s unbelievable. Why in the world would the archdiocese set guidelines on this practice? I mean, was it creating a huge problem having little ones receive ashes? Give me a break! I suppose it’s right to go along with it (though you might luck out and find someone who might administer the ashes to the tykes anyway) but I don’t think Our Lord is pleased with it. I’m almost shuddering thinking of how laypeople administering the ashes will be instructed to not give them to little ones. Unbelievable. Someone has good intentions somewhere, trying to instruct the faithful but I think this was a huge mistake. God help us. Our Church is in a sorry state.

  32. Jenny bag of donuts says:

    JGR, that makes me really angry. I’m really sorry someone is getting in the way of your raising your child properly. I guess you could use it as a teaching moment. Perhaps your five year old could look at not receiving the ashes as a little sacrifice to offer up. Also, you and your child could pray for the silly person(s) who came up with this policy, praying that they will be enlightened and concentrate on regulating things that really matter. I think it would be important to emphasize obedience to the policy but explain why it’s wrong.

  33. Supertradmum says:

    If all chanceries closed, except for Canon Law offices, and all the liturgical departments, religious education departments, and social justice departments would close, we would have a better Church.

    Some bored liturgical director or liberal religious education director (ours introduced sex education in third grade) or such convinced a bishop to allow this nonsense about not giving out a sacramental to a child.


  34. Jenny bag of donuts says:

    JGR, you might want to write the Bishop using Andrew’s excellent point above and quoting the passage in the Gospel where Christ says “Let the children come to me.”

  35. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down….

    I also can’t believe the “baptized individuals”. If the completely pagan people of Nineveh could do sackcloth and ashes, who are we to stand in the way of our non-Catholic or non-Christian neighbors wanting a sign of repentance? It’s not even as if there’s anything blasphemous you can do with ashes; the Satanists sure aren’t panting to remember their oncoming dissolution.

  36. Fr_Sotelo says:


    Very good point to mention the biblical practice. In fact, even the animals got sackcloth and ashes put on! LOL. Can you imagine our parishioners trying to hold down their dogs and cats, or even parakeets, to put sackcloth and ashes on them?

    This brings back memories of a young transitional deacon helping me years ago, who refused to put ashes on a baby during the Ash Wednesday Mass. So, mom was unamused and walked away from him and stood before me, and I promptly gave ashes to her and the kids. As they walked away, the little boy asked, “mom, why did we get ashes from Fr. Angel instead?” to which mom replied, “BECAUSE HE IS THE PASTOR, and he knows what he is doing!” LOL.

  37. benedetta says:

    On a developmental level, little ones of this age begin to understand the concept of beginning, middle and end, whether that is represented in a story told or sung to them, or reflected in real life events, such as, in the morning, at the beginning of the day, we have breakfast, Dad leaves for his work, and at the end of the day, he comes home, and we eat together again…or something similar depending on the routines. It starts with the simplest games where a toy is hidden and pops out again, over and over, they leave, and they come back, surprise…novelty. A little one also can comprehend and experience many of the sensory aspects of worship. Children who live the liturgical year in the domestic churches of their families become aware of the order and experience and this only contributes to their overall well-being and security and effectiveness as persons in the world. The reception of ashes, even to a little one, can transmit a sense of a real “beginning” to what is the most beautiful and significant time in our liturgical year and helps to establish a tangible foundation in a daily life in faith. Just as families observe Advent together, regardless of ages of children, the start of Lent can be recognized and lived as a family also.

  38. rakesvines says:

    If we can baptize infants; we can ash toddlers – imho. Just take the precautions that Fr. Z suggested.

    As long a they don’t do what my confrere, fellow monk, did (in my other life). He stuck out his tongue as though he were receiving Communion. What can I say? He must have been tired and Mass is the first thing in the schedule. The priest told us how very tempted he was to put the mark on the tongue too.

    More anecdotes here

  39. Alice says:

    I LOLed.

    My children, 2.5 and 2 months will receive ashes, unless they refuse to hold still long enough. Little children can participate in the liturgy far more than we adults realize. A couple of Sundays ago, I was half holding, half balancing my toddler on the back of the pew in front of us during the Creed. When it came time to bow for the lines about the Incarnation, he bowed even before I did and stood up with me. The next week he did the same thing.

  40. A friend of mine in the USA felt utterly rejected by the Church some years ago when a priest wouldn’t put ashes on the forehead of his brain-damaged son, who had been hit by a car outside their home. The boy was about six, I think at the time when he had the accident and this wasn’t too long after. At the time my friend was trying to cope with the permanent serious illness of his wife and with the death of a teenage girl who used to babysit for them and was killed by terrorists in another country.

    I’m certain that the priest’s intention wasn’t unkind or to reject anyone. He probably saw the child as incapable of sinning, But what my friend experienced was being turned away along with his disabled son. I know that for years he never went near a church again.

    I can never remember not receiving the ashes as a child.