ASK FATHER: If there is no other priest, does Father put ashes on himself? #ashtag

AshWednesdayFrom a priest comes a good #ashtag question…


A couple priests have asked me today, and I have no good answer – when a priest is offering Mass on Ash Wednesday without another priest present, or a deacon, does he impose ashes upon himself? Have a layperson impose them?

Last year, my first Ash Wednesday as a priest, I had Mass alone. Feeling a bit foolish about it, but wanting the sign of penitence myself, I imposed ashes on my own head. This year, I’m filling in for the parish priest and, at the early Mass, I had a layman, who was serving at the altar, impose ashes on me. [Ahhh… the Novus Ordo!]

Fr. ___, likely getting his info from his uncle, said that the priest should impose ashes on himself, and used the analogy of the priest blessing himself with Holy Water at the Asperges. Another priest of solid repute said that no, one should not impose a sign of penance on oneself, and since the ashes are already blessed by the priest, having another person impose them was not any sort of diminution of the sacerdotal status. Another priest says the he, for many years now, simply forgoes having ashes himself.

I have to imagine this was a very common situation back in the day. Do the older rubrics say anything about this situation? What are your thoughts?

First, I, for one, will never allow a layperson to put ashes on any part of me… unless we are hunkered down in a hide and I need smudges under my eyes while keeping our advancing hunters fixed in my rose-color gunsight.

Back in 1931, during the happy pontificate of Pius XI of venerable memory, the Sacred Congregation for Rites said that, if the priest is alone (i.e., if no other priest is present), he stands facing the altar and puts ashes on himself, saying nothing.

The rest is silence.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in ¡Hagan lío!, ASK FATHER Question Box, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Mail from priests and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Pastor in Valle says:

    The EF Missal is clear in the rubrics: …Si vero non adsit alius Sacerdos, ipsemet Celebrans, genibus flexis coram Altari, sibi ipsi cineres imponit in capite, nihil dicens…

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. frmh says:

    I was down to say the Novus Ordo today. Self imposed the ashes on myself, no laity involved in ash imposition here.

    I was slightly worried what kind of shape I had made, I really laid the stuff on pretty heavy. The Mass was ad-orientem and so it wasn’t a bit concern.

    When I got back to the presbytery I was fairly satisfied with the job- a big smudge but evidently cross shaped.

  3. Ivan says:

    “…if the priest is alone (i.e., if no other priest is present), he stands facing the altar and puts ashes on himself, saying nothing.”
    That’s the way how it went today in our place.

  4. Kerry says:

    Hmm…hunkered down in a hide, advancing hunters, rose colored gunsight. Does “A hit! A very palpable hit!”, translate into “Gaudete!” ?

  5. Mike says:

    The Bad news: I had ashes put on me by a layman, and received Holy Communion from same layman.
    Good news: The young priest (a visiting one, I believe from the Legionaries) gave one of the BEST Ash Wednesday homilies I have ever heard. A paraphrase:
    We put on our war paint today, because Lent is a time of battle when we return to Christ lost territory–our souls, our minds, our hearts, our bodies–to Him. He has already won the war, but we must fight big and small battles with Him, who earnestly desires our return, our coming closer. This is a hidden battle, largely…and then he mentioned the triple concupiscences from St. John, where we must with Christ bring the fight.

  6. Kathleen10 says:

    We were told we could take ashes today to give to someone sick, etc. Is that ok?

  7. Mike says:

    And of course I should add the “bad” news was really deeply good news, as I received Our Lord. I just wish it was in a way more explicitly aware of his hidden majesty!

  8. ChesterFrank says:

    Another question about the ashes. Something that is becoming much more common is to mix the ashes with water to form a paint and then painting the cross on the parishioners forehead with the thumb. Is that legitimate? I read that the protestants do this and often mix carbon or lampblack with the ashes so that they might be black. I guess they photograph better. It is thick as paint. Is this something new?

  9. Mojoron says:

    I guess I’m going to hell, I ashed my Priest today when I was serving. Sorry.

  10. fishonthehill says:

    Wow, Mass with the Angels and Saints and me alone on Ash Wednesday… I can only dream! At end of day after 3 Masses and 3 services with 1000’s of people, 2 police stations and a firehouse; I am just a little jealous. May everyone have Blessed Lent.

  11. teechrlady says:

    I watched a woman “ash minister” (or whatever it is they want called) put the ashes on Father. Wrong, just wrong.

  12. un-ionized says:

    ChesterFrank, there is no one way to apply ashes done by all Protestants. The most common method is to mix them with oil so that they will stick.

  13. Rich says:

    I’m gonna surreptitiously get ash on the tip of my thumb and I’m gonna go up to Fr. Z. and I’m gonna say, “Hey, Fr. Z! You know, when you get to be bishop and you wearing your Darth-Vader-themed mitre it’s gonna look real dope if it comes down to about here…” And I’m gonna feign indication with my fingers of some level at his brow and although it’s gonna be like Thursday of the 17th Week After Pentecost I’m gonna go BAM! ASHES!

    [And now consider what Bp. Darth’s reaction will be.]

  14. majuscule says:

    Father imposed ashes upon himself before doing it to us. I had actually never noticed before!

  15. Nan says:

    I was horrified that in addition to the two priests they had, um, people putting ashes on others. People! At some parishes that wouldn’t shock me. At this parish, it did.

    I guess next time I go to the other place, even with pants and without mantilla.

  16. Poustinik1 says:

    It was all I could do to get to Church today, following two weeks of bronchial infection. So yes, just went for Ashes. Oh no, I thought, as I could feel the young Priest trace an absolutely massive crucifix I mean cross on my forehead. Afterwards, a quick check in the mirror revealed just as I feared…
    a 2 1/2 inch by 2 inch cross. No joke!!! And no I am not bald and do have a small face. Really Father? How did manage to do that? So yes, this year I did wipe 85% of it off. There was plenty of smudge evidence to wear around the rest of the day. Was able to return for evening Mass, again to another packed house, no parking anywhere and this was at the 5:15pm. I did notice that as this Mass was offered by a different Priest (the Pastor), the Ashes on the foreheads were much daintier! No, I did not feel the need to receive Ashes again though I noticed several women glancing at my forehead at the end of Mass. Its okay ladies, I know that I am only dust.

  17. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    I do not understand your questioner’s problem, nor those who have expressed similar confusion in the replies. The Rubric of the EF Missal says:
    “Si vero non adsit alius sacerdos, ipsemet Celebrans, ad Altare conversus, sibi ipsi cineres imponit in capite, nihil dicens.”
    There seems to be no room for confusion here, and since the Ordinary Form does not mention a priest alone, it seems reasonable that this instruction is to be followed.

  18. frmh says:

    In a previous parish the PP’s ‘day off’ was Wednesday,

    so Ash Wednesday was no different…..maybe he said Holy Mass on his own in his bedroom…..I couldn’t say.

    Now my ‘day off’ fell on Christmas Eve but I didn’t push it….

  19. APX says:

    Insterestingly enough, at the Anglican Use Ordinariate, despite there also being another priest (acting as subdeacon), and a deacon, the priest offering Mass administered them to himself (which seemed to be in the rubrics).

  20. Imrahil says:

    From liturgical stomach-feeling without rubrical knowledge:

    – no, if there’s a deacon present (deacon administers ashes to celebrant)

    – no, if he’s already received the ashes in another Mass or service (celebrant does not receive ashes)

    – no, if with moral certainty he will attend another later Mass or Ash Wednesday service where with moral certainty another priest or a deacon will be present (celebrant does not receive ashes),

    – yes otherwise.

  21. LA says:

    In our chapel, there were 3 priests imposing ashes on the faithful. At the end, priest C knelt in front of priest B who dribbled ashes into the hair of priest C in the form of a cross (on top of head, not forehead). Then priest B knelt in front of priest A, who put ashes into B’s hair. Then A knelt and received ashes from B. All very piously done. A, B, and C are all SSPX.

  22. gretta says:

    ChesterFrank, other than a little bit of holy water, you really don’t want to mix the ashes and water, and apply them anywhere. That combination makes lye, and your Lenten feelings of penitence will be greatly enhanced by the rather painful feeling of having lye on your skin! If you mix ashes with anything, it should be oil, not water.

  23. afanco says:

    A priest traditionally would receive his ashes at the location of his tonsure, which would be why the SSPX priest received his ashes on the top of his head.

    Why? The ashes are a sign of death to the world. A cleric already wears black to signify that, so they go back to the original sign when they became a cleric, the tonsure.

    Our Institute priest did so to himself.

  24. un-ionized says:

    gretta, you will not get potassium hydroxide from adding water to the ashes of palm fronds, there is not enough potassium there. you get potassium hydroxide from the ashes of hardwood. the fact that water is often added to ashes for Ash Wednesday demonstrates this conclusively. you don’t see Methodists going around the next day with chemical burns on their faces.

  25. phlogiston says:

    I would expect Bishop Darth’s reaction would be, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

    [Followed by one of those throat crushes.]

  26. clq24 says:

    Yesterday, my priest asked me, a layperson, to impose ashes on him since there was no deacon at the early morning Mass. I was honored to be asked to do this small gesture for him not because I felt I had a right to do it but because I could be of service to the pastor who has heard my confessions, spiritually lead me closer to Christ, and helped me with bringing family members back to the Church. It might be looked at with disdain that a layperson did this for a priest but I cannot help but think of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet and anointed him. She was a layperson who Jesus welcomed to do that simple humbling gesture for him. Yes, laypeople have their roles in the liturgy, I do not disagree with that at all but sometimes it is in the simplest gestures that we find Jesus the most present.

  27. APX says:

    Our previous priest used to mix the ashes with a copious amount of holy water to make it into a paste to that it would go on thick and last all day. It was a lot like mixing powder eyeliner with water.

  28. ChesterFrank says:

    The reason I mention Protestants is I was curious where this trend started, and found it mentioned on a Protestant website. A news story also showed Protestants exiting a church with extremely exaggerated ash crosses on their foreheads. For the past few years, Catholic Churches I attended switched from dry ash to the ash slurry. Something started this trend, but I don’t know what.

  29. Geoffrey says:

    The second volume of the “Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite” instruct the priest to impose them on himself. It also says that those in “major orders” can have the ashes sprinkled on their heads.

  30. DisturbedMary says:

    I’m always impressed by the number of people who showed up to get ashes….and though in the past I’ve heard priests refer to the A&P (ashes and palm) people in a mildly disparaging way, it is powerful to watch lines of volunteers approach in a serious and thoughtful way in order to be reminded of their dusty fragility.

  31. Rich says:

    I would prefer to go by way of light saber deftly retrieved from under the chasuble as opposed to a throat crush.

    [You can’t always get what you want.]

  32. hwriggles4 says:

    Dumb question:

    Would it be appropriate for either a permanent deacon or a transitional deacon to put ashes on the priest forehead? I could see this if a deacon was on the Altar on Ash Wednesday.

    I also asked this because I am a revert who grew up in the post Vatican II confusion of the 70s and 80s. Last night (I am a layman) I had ashes distributed by an EMHC who said, “from dust to dust and from dust you shall return. ” [Figures.]

  33. Rich says:

    hardy har har har har

  34. GloriaDei says:

    This morning’s Fresno Bee (Fresno, Ca) has a frontpage photo and and inside story and additional photo of the Rev. Chris Breedlove of Community United Church of Christ administering drive-through ashes to congregants too lazy to exit their cars. Inside photo shows Breedlove applying ashes to a dog named Gingerbread. Story failed to mention who applied Rev. Breedlove’s ashes. Perhaps the dog? Hope this link works: or just use

  35. joekstl says:

    To DisturbedMary: I, too, have heard priests disparagingly refer to A&P Catholics or CAPE Catholics (Christmas, Ashes, Palms and Easter). A shame because these feasts are an occasion to welcome people back. [You are perhaps entering into rash judgment. First, the fact is that there are Catholics who show up only for those days and CE, etc., is short hand. Second, such a nickname need not be malicious, as you seem to assume.] At our parish this Ash Wednesday we had a morning Mass at our church and then took our message out into the community. This year we were on the beach at our city’s bandshell. We had a service at noon and another at 7:00pm. Our pastor was available for confessions all day for those who wished. We had exposition of the Reserved Sacrament and Stations of the Cross. Over 500 people participated during the course of the day. It’s a good way for us to evangelize.

  36. FrPJ says:

    Actually a few years ago in Ireland an ecclesiastical supplies company provided ready made ashes to several parishes that were made not from palm branches but ordinary tree branches. In Ireland the custom is to mix the ashes with a little holy water to make a sticky paste. The fall out even made it into the newspapers. Several people were burned. When one child had the ashes put on her forehead she shouted “It burns, it burns!!” You couldn’t make it up.

Comments are closed.