ASK FATHER: COVID-1984 and Ash Wednesday 2021: sprinkling ashes instead of tracing a cross

From a reader… actually, more than one…


Question on Ash Wednesday TLM ‘62 Missal; would the Priest be distributing ashes by sprinkling over head or would TLM be exempt and have ashes distributed as in previous years ( Communion Rail on forehead as a cross). Announcements have been made about 2021 ashes however parishes I attend mass at have Novus Oreo and Extraordinary Form.

Sorry, but my psychic powers don’t give me special insight into what will happen where you are.

That said, there was a document from the Congregation for Divine Worship that pertains to the Novus Ordo about the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday.  If I recall, it says that the priest can say the form for administration of the ashes once for everyone and then sprinkle them on the heads of the people without saying anything.    It did not, however, seem to me that that is the obligatory way to do it.  I think it is an option.

It doesn’t concern me that much because I will be saying the Traditional Mass on Ash Wednesday, and that document from the CDW doesn’t pertain.   I may, however, say, those of you who want ashes on the forehead, come to the rail on the Epistle side, and those who want them sprinkled go to the Gospel side.

Take note that sprinkling the ashes is how it is done in Rome.  It isn’t some strange modernist innovation.

There are different customs in different places for distribution of ashes.   In these USA and perhaps elsewhere we have a practice of tracing the cross with ash from the incinerated blessed palms of the year before.  In Rome, however, it is the practice to sprinkle ashes on the top of the head.  Clerics with tonsures, would have the ashes sprinkled on the shaved tonsure spot.

Hence, there is nothing wrong with using the sprinkling method in these USA.  It’s the Roman way to do it, after all.  It might be strange for people who are accustomed to the tracing of the cross, but it isn’t a wrong way to do it.

Also, in the traditional Missal, for imposition of ashes the rubric says that the the priest with highest dignity imposes ashes on the celebrant.  It doesn’t say how: imponit cineres celebranti.  If the priest is alone, without another priest present, he imposes ashes on himself on the head: sibi ipsi cineres imponit in capite.  On the head.  It doesn’t say how.  The Roman way is to sprinkle them.  For example, here is Pope Benedict receiving ashes at the Station church, the Basilica of Santa Sabina.  The one imposing them is the titular Cardinal of that basilica.

One thing I would add, is that, just as in tracing the cross on the forehead, especially with children, be careful not to use so much ash that it could fall into people’s eyes.

Concerning ashes on chapel veils … I dunno.

And… this is important, Fathers…  when someone comes up and by habit sticks her tongue out…. resist!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Public Savant says:

    Did she really write “Novus Oreo?”

  2. Gab says:

    Moot point for us in the state of Victoria as our ”catholic” premier suddenly declared yesterday that we are again in lockdown until Wednesday 11.59pm. And we have to remain within 5km (3.1 miles) radius from home and allowed out for only 2 hours a day for exercise, groceries and ”permitted” work but liquor stores and abortion mills stay open. ”Intimate partner visits” are exempt from the 5km rule. This is clearly diabolical.

    So no Ash Wednesday for us. There are 13 people with the virus in a state with a population of 6.5 million. Yes, 13.

  3. ocsousn says:

    A sea story from my days as a Navy Chaplain with the Marines: In 1993 we were deployed in the Adriatic Sea aboard the USS ESSEX. After several weeks on station off Dubrovnik, helplessly watching the city’s destruction under Serbian guns (a sad tale for another time), we pulled into Trieste a few days before Ash Wednesday. After celebrating Ash Wednesday Holy Mass aboard our ship I joined the local bishop and canons at the cathedral. Come the Blessing of Ashes after the homily a huge tray heaped high with ashes was brought forward. A bit overly dramatic, thought I. The best was yet to come. Beginning with the senior canon we went forward to have a fistful of ashes plopped on our heads and falling on our vestments. Everyone got this treatment, young and old. I particularly recall a lady in a full-length mink coat and a lace mantilla. The ashes had a disastrous effect on he makeup. But to me the most remarkable thing was that no one batted an eyelash. This was what one expected. Of course I inquired as to the vintage of this manner of imposing ashes and was assured by an elderly member of the cathedral chapter that it was an immemorial custom. Isn’t the Catholic Church fascinating?

  4. G1j says:

    Well one thing for certain if they are sprinkling ashes this year…At least the priest will not be using a sludge concoction consisting of palm ashes and chrism oils like they are so fond of doing at our parish. ?

  5. Charivari Rob says:

    ocsousn, thank you. Your mention of Dubrovnik prompted me to go read a little history.
    My superficial recollections of news reporting at the time were very spotty, and having had a much more recent visit (2015) to the beautiful, walled old city – I was amazed to look at photos of the early 90s destruction. They’re quite dedicated on architectural authenticity and preservation – I stayed in a guest house literally across the street from the location of the fire in this photo and one would scarcely credit that the city had ever been bombed.

  6. ocsousn says:

    Thanks for your post, Charivaru Rob. Watching this tragedy from the bridge of the USS ESSEX I recall remarking to my colonel that perhaps there was more to be said for multi ethnic empires like Austria-Hungary than it was fashionable to admit. He agreed. On another note, our readers will be interested to note that Dubrovnik is the home of the relics of St. Blaise, as in the Blessing of Throats.

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  8. Orual says:

    Regarding ashes on chapel veils: couldn’t the veil briefly be lowered to receive the ashes on the head?

  9. majuscule says:

    I heard in passing that in my diocese ashes may (possibly) be imposed on the forehead via cotton swab—a new one for each person.

  10. L. says:

    I have avoided Ash Wednesday services for years, since I’m not required to attend, and it does nothing for my spiritual well-being to have a “presider” smear ashes on my forehead.

  11. The one time I received ashes from a pope, St. John Paul II at Santa Sabina, he sprinkled them.

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