ASK FATHER: Young children receiving ashes on #AshWednesday

This comes up each year in my ASK FATHER email, so I will repost an oldie.

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?

There aren’t any age rules for this.  As your 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 take care 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.

Speaking for myself, I have some very early memories.  I wonder what the long-term effect of the reception of ashes might be deep down in her Catholic identity as she grows up amid the deepening challenges of this world.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. richly says:

    Yanked my 4-year-old son out of be at 6am to get to morning Ash Wednesday Mass to get his ashes before going to school. A subtle way for him to witness Christ to a highly-secularized LAUSD pre-school.

    I strongly encourage parents to have their children get ashes. My wife got my son’s first ashes when he was four months.

  2. I hold to the view that anyone can receive ashes; therefore, any age.

    When parents come with small children, I ask the parents if they want their child to receive ashes, and with their permission, I impose them. Even on infants.

  3. dwrobles says:

    If we can get to Ash Wed Mass, all the kids get ashes – down to the baby (although the baby is 5 now). It’s good way to start explaining penance and the 4 last things as they relate to a concrete act. As for the fasting, etc. we like our desserts, but they are shut off for everyone in the house – including all the kids – during lent. As a parent it’s the best of all worlds, a big sacrifice for them, healthier, and cheaper. Of course we (parents) try to do more fasting, etc. and work with the older kids to do so as well.

  4. TundraMN says:

    My wife and I went this morning and took our 17 month old and our 6 week old. They both got ashes. I know they’re not capable of sin or repentance yet, however we want to get them in the practice of participation (both outwardly and inwardly) as soon as they’re able to do so.

  5. Imrahil says:

    We’ve been told that the imposition of ashes was, originally, an act of Christian solidarity with the those who underwent solemn penance.

    If so, a child can solidarize himself with those who impose the ashes for general Christian penance, as the child too is a member of the body of Christ.

    That said, while it takes use of reason to commit a mortal sin, it is not so clear at all whether not venial sins can already occur some time before that point.

  6. pitkiwi says:

    The ashes can be a reminder to others that even those who do not have the use of reason still experience the effects of original sin.

  7. NoraLee9 says:

    I don’t think my daughter remembers any Ash Wednesday when she did not receive Ashes. She went to 12:10 Mass after college classes today. On her own. She’ll be 19 in April.

  8. THREEHEARTS says:

    As A child in a Catholic School in the UK at the start of the war, Sister Joseph of the Sisters of Charity made sure we all went to mass at 9 am and we all were “ashed”. The Parish Priest insisted.

  9. TheDude05 says:

    My not quite 1 year old daughter received her first ashes today. My thoughts are if you are a member of the Church, as she surely is having been Baptized, it is never too early to start working towards Heaven. Even if she has no understanding of the ashes it is an imprint in her memory. One of the reasons I take her with me to receive Communion is that experience of reverence and close proximity to our Lord.

  10. MrsMacD says:

    It helps me to remember that we’re raising these little Catholics for eternal life. Remember son that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return. Start as soon as you can, they’re so impressionable.

  11. Random Friar says:

    The Ninevites put sackcloth and ashes even on their animals in the Old Testament, perhaps to show how serious and repentant they were in the universal call to repent.

    The reading from Joel today says to gather everyone, “even children at the breast.” While not mentioning ashes specifically, it does mention gathering everyone to publicly repent.

  12. Margaret says:

    All of my children have received ashes since they were babies, if they were at the Mass and not home sleeping. My five-year-old, a very enthusiastic CCD-attendee who is investing lots of bandwidth into thinking about matters theological, was very keen to get ashes this morning, especially since he hasn’t made First Communion yet. I told him the ashes meant that he was sorry for being bad, wanted to be good, and loved Jesus, which he was all on-board with.

  13. stephen c says:

    I could be wrong, but I think very young children should not receive ashes, for at least two reasons. First, there is the blessed hope that each parent of a child ought to hope for his or her children, that his or her children will be among the blessed generation that lives to see the return of our Lord in Glory, and for them the familiar “ashes to ashes” story will not have to be endured in its full bitterness. Second, there is the respect we owe to Jesus himself who stated that the way to heaven is to be as innocent as we were before the age of reason; those who are obviously in the age of innocence should never receive ashes, out of hope-filled and humble respect for the guidance our Lord gave us. (Similarly, I hope some day that some of my fellow Christians who speak of our Lady as a creature subject to death in their sermons and liturgies – no matter how traditional such sermons and liturgies might seem to be to them – will, out of humble respect for miracles they did not personally see, change the words to reference sleep instead of death). I realize that good parents want to prepare their children for a hard and tough world, but we have been promised that God will provide to those who love Him, and God wants us to teach each other to be hard and tough only in situations where hardness and toughness are necessary.

  14. Bea says:

    In our church, I have seen even infants receive ashes.
    After all, from the moment of conception, we are all doomed to one day die.
    I have always seen it as a reminder, not of penance and reform, but as a reminder that THIS world is not our home. We were made for heaven and we should be dead to the world and alive to the world that is to come.

  15. Muv says:

    Seeing ashes on a child’s forehead is a very stark reminder that death can strike unexpectedly and at a young age.
    I’m glad you gave the warning about the child’s eyes. Years ago I got ash in my eyes – it scratches like anything. Since then it’s eyes down, or better still, firmly shut.

  16. CPT TOM says:

    My children received ashes from infants on up…only time they didn’t was when Father Nice-Nice decided (and he still does this) to put heart stickers on the young kids heads, so not to “scare” them, and I wasn’t at the school Mass that year. Last time. Father Nice-Nice got talked to about depriving me as a parent of the teaching moment of explaining what the ashes mean, and why, and about treating kids like they’re stupid. Of course, he did give me the teaching moment of explaining to my then 1st grader son the stupidity of dumbing down Church teaching and explain what “Heterodoxy” and what was a “Heretic.” Last time Father ever did that to one of my kids. The next year my then 2d grader got ashes.

  17. Thorfinn says:

    Wearing the ashes through the afternoon at work provoked a range of reactions, as always. The most powerful: “Why do you have …. oh, that’s right, it must be Ash Wednesday. I grew up Catholic. I should go and get — but why should today be any different from the past 25 years?”

    It was one of those times when you wish you knew the perfect words to say. I suggested he would be welcome and provided churches and times when he could get ashes but he did not go in the end. Please pray for David.

  18. Alice says:

    I remember an old monsignor (RIP) mentioning in a sermon how one of his parishioners, a divorced and remarried woman, said she always liked February because she got to come up and do exactly what everyone else did twice. [Yes. I think this is an important thing. My old pastor/mentor made the same point.]
    As a small child, I liked February for the same reason. The blessing of throats and ashes were for everyone, even those who couldn’t receive Communion. Of course, when I was a kid, parents weren’t quite so overprotective and kids sat in the pew during Communion as soon as they could reasonably be expected to stay out of trouble while their parents were receiving.

  19. TheDude05 says:

    Of course we should hope that Christ comes again during our children’s life. Of course without reason our children are innocent following Baptism. Still there is that old adage of living in hope and dying in diapair. While I hope for a happy death, and I work with God to become a Saint, the reality is that our children will more than likely reach the age of reason and begin to sin. Staring from an early age teaching them about repentance through our actions and the actions of the Church helps them from a memory/recognition level. On the supernatural level, if grace of any kind is offered through the ashes (which in my translation of the EF blessings seems to be as a sacramental there is some kind of grace here) should we not have our children receive that grace? Father may correct me on my understanding, but as the children are innocent wouldn’t they be more likely to receive grace than a reasonable person who is able to make the decision to turn it away? Even should the ashes not have any form of grace attached to them, having our children receive them just begins them on the long path of using sacramentals and working within the rhythms of the Church. I liked the call out from Jonah about the animals, how much more so for human children if for animals.

  20. stephen c says:

    Praying for all one’s children to all get to heaven is something I do not do enough of, either generally or specifically. And I can’t disagree with a single word in TheDude05’s comment. That being said – and with the proviso that I do not even remotely understand what sacramentals are – even with the connection between Ash Wednesday and the happiest day (up to that time) on Earth, the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, I like to think that there are, among the babies in every church, several possible saints who ( like Therese Martin or Nathaniel the Israelite or the Prophet Daniel or (in our cold hard brutal days) the tens of millions of babies who were untimely disinvited from having their rightful share in earthly life) will never – not once – fall into any kind of sin that would call for, in charity, the unrequested public imposition of ashes or sackcloth of any kind.

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