QUAERITUR: can lay people bless ashes?

From a priest reader:

I had occasion to witness an Ash Wednesday liturgy at [a boy’s school] in [___].  As there was no priest planning to be available, the liturgy was conducted by teachers and students.  After some readings, the students were invited to extend their hands and to pray a prayer of blessing over the ashes which were then put on the foreheads of the students by other students.

Am I wrong in thinking that there is nothing in Catholic theology to justify a blessing of ashes on Ash Wednesday by  a group of laypersons?

No, Father, I do not think you are wrong.  Lay people can’t bless in that manner and it was abusive to give them the impression that they could. 

I suppose that in the absence of a priest if the students were going to do things with ashes, careful explanations should have been given about what sacramentals are, what priests do, the difference between the priesthood of priests and of the baptized, etc.

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  1. Marcin says:

    Could then lay people distribute ashes with a customary verse recited, if ashes have been blessed by a priest?
    My guess is that they could, based on opinion, expressed before on this forum, that lay people could bless throats with candles on St. Blaise’s using slightly changed prayer formula.

    Would the ashes need to be blessed on the spot, immediately before distribution, or blessed elsewhere and distributed by lay people in another venue?
    I’m asking because we have a chapel in a military hospital where Mass and distribution of ashes took place, while medical student body was in the school through their intense classwork, with really little time to be blessed, not to mention attend Mass. I saw only couple of students at Mass, a tiny fraction of Catholic students wishing to attend. There is no chaplain at the university, only in the hospital.

  2. steve14530 says:

    What about baptism. Would not a lay person bless the water before using it? I would have though that the lay person would bless the water with the trinitarian formula before using it.

  3. bubba says:

    What sort of “liturgy” was this where no Priest was available. How could this serve as a liturgial rite in any case–were they all dying? Wow. Maybe it’s just me, but WOW.

  4. EXCHIEF says:

    But but but Father—what about empowering the people!?!?!?

  5. FrCharles says:

    This whole business of ‘everybody extend a hand in blessing.’ whether an ordained minister is present or not (but especially in the former case) is a form a creeping Protestantism.

  6. michelelyl says:

    Just a moment- aren’t the ashes made from Palms that were blessed by a priest on Palm Sunday? And the prayers that I have used when ashes are distributed in classrooms are a general prayer of blessing, not a blessing of the ashes themselves. Did you ask if the ashes themselves were previously blessed by a priest during an earlier Mass? And was this a ‘liturgy’ as in Mass, or a prayer service with distribution of ashes?

    I am the one responsible for gathering the dried palms from the parishioners between Christmas Season and Shrove Tuesday and I also burn them in the firepit we use for Easter Vigil. Our priests bless the ashes at earlier Masses several times (over and over in the same receptacle) before they are distributed to the children and catechists during classtime.

    Since we offer Mass with distribution of Ashes 4 times on Ash Wednesday, in addition to distribution of ashes to the children in Religious Education Classes, and a noon prayer service with a brief reading and distribution of ashes for those who work downtown and cannot get off work to attend Mass, we use Extra-ordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to distribute the ashes during RE and the prayer service. They also assist at Mass because of the huge numbers of people. Ashes are sacramentals, not a sacrament- what is wrong with lay people distribution ashes? You certainly don’t need to be in a ‘state of grace’ to receive ashes.

    By the way-BUBBA- Ash Wednesday is a very busy day for priests- especially in a parish with one priest and many services in both English and Spanish…I don’t think it’s fair to criticize an unknown priest for not being available to distribute ashes. You don’t know the circumstances. If you’re going to criticize the way the prayer service was done, do so but leave the priest alone.

  7. dcs says:

    Just a moment- aren’t the ashes made from Palms that were blessed by a priest on Palm Sunday?

    Yes, but once the palms are burned they are no longer blessed because they have undergone a substantial change.

  8. The problem is with the children “extending their hands over the ashes” for a prayer of blessing.
    Unless, of course, these ashes had not been blessed.
    But again, and please don’t misunderstand me, this is a sacramental. It is not a Sacrament.
    It is illicit and wrong and invalid(for a lay blessing), etc., etc. and gives the wrong idea, teaching for the children, teachers, and whoever is involved.
    If a chaplain/pastor is not overseeing this, then it is HIS fault.
    Sorry to sound so anti-clerical; I am a priest, but so much goofiness goes on that I have to put this at the feet of whatever priest is supposed to be in charge.

  9. Mike says:

    I agree Nazareth Priest.

    A related Q: What about lay blessings of the throat on Feast of St. Blaise?

  10. Fr. W says:

    Our Ordo says that the priest or deacon is the ordinary minister of the ashes but can be assisted in distribution by a lay person. The book of blessings (cough, cough) – yes, even the book of blessings, says in its section on distributing ashes says that while distribution can be done by a lay person, ‘the blessing of the ashes, is reserved to a priest or deacon.’

  11. catholicmidwest says:

    NOPE. Can’t give the blessing of the throats on St. Blaise’s day either.

  12. catholicmidwest says:

    Hubris doesn’t stop them from trying, though.

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