Ashes for Children and non-Catholics

And More on the Papal «Oath»

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ROME, MARCH 13, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. 

Q1: On Ash Wednesday is it appropriate for young children to receive the ashes? The formula «Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel,» implies the recipient is capable of committing sin. We normally consider this to be at the age of reason, that is, 7 years of age. Parents often bring up small children, from babes in arms, to toddlers, to 4-5-year olds, and want them to receive the ashes. Is this appropriate, given that the children might have no understanding of what is involved? — E.K., Toronto

Q2: A question arose on Ash Wednesday: Are there any limits as to distribution; i.e., who may properly receive ashes? Can non-Catholics and baptized infants receive? Are there any norms for distributing blessed ashes and where are they? The assumption was that anyone could receive regardless of age or religious affiliation. Is this correct? — S.M., Indianapolis, Indiana

A: The rules regarding imposition of ashes are scant, to say the least, and do not seem to put any particular limitations as to who may receive them.

The rubrics of the missal simple say that «the Priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him ….»

The Congregation for Divine Worship published a circular letter regarding these celebrations in 1988. Regarding Ash Wednesday it says:

«21. ‘On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, the faithful receive the ashes, thus entering into the time established for the purification of their souls. This sign of penance, a traditionally biblical one, has been preserved among the Church’s customs until the present day. It signifies the human condition of the sinner, who seeks to express his guilt before the Lord in an exterior manner, and by so doing express his interior conversion, led on by the confident hope that the Lord will be merciful. This same sign marks the beginning of the way of conversion, which is developed through the celebration of the sacraments of penance during the days before Easter.’

«The blessing and imposition of ashes should take place either in the Mass or outside of the Mass. In the latter case, it is to be part of a liturgy of the word and conclude with the prayer of the faithful.»

Although it is clear that young children have no need to repent nor to do penance, I would see no reason to refuse to impose ashes if their parents present them. This act can serve as a means of forming them in Catholic traditions just as they will teach them to make the sign of the cross and will often bring them to Mass several years before their first Holy Communion.

On Ash Wednesday many people, including numerous irregularly practicing Catholics, request the imposition of ashes. There is no good reason to refuse anyone, and indeed this gesture might light a spark of repentance.

I believe that most Protestants, above all evangelicals, would never dream of making use of a Catholic sacramental. Episcopalians and some others, however, who might not be near one of their own churches might decide to receive at a Catholic service.

Since receiving ashes is a sign of penance and does not necessarily imply communion of faith, I think that this sign could be granted even if the priest knew that they were not Catholics.

In short, I think the best practice is to simply trust the good faith of those requesting the imposition of ashes and not worry about their motivation or provenance.

Unlike the case of receiving Communion it is unlikely that any harm can come from receiving ashes, and sometimes God can use these moments to produce much good.

* * *

Follow-up: The «Papal Coronation Oath»

After our Feb. 28 comments on the supposed «Papal Coronation Oath» a reader inquired: «I was somewhat surprised, not to mention a little bit puzzled, by your response to the inquiry about a Papal Oath upon the formal inauguration of a new Supreme Pontiff. Are you saying, in effect, that no such thing ever existed? Or, is it because of the actions taken by the Second Vatican Council, many of which were heavy-handed to say the least, none can be acknowledged?»

Although I am not a formally trained historian, from what I have been able to investigate I think that it is safe to affirm that in all probability this oath has never been taken by any pope.

As mentioned in the previous article, this oath is presented by some small groups as evidence in support of the claim that the See of Peter has been vacant for more than 50 years or so depending on which recent pope is not to their liking.

The oath seems to be always presented in an alleged English translation and not the original Latin. At least one traditionalist source honestly admits that it doesn’t know where to find the original text.

The sources I checked to examine the rite of papal coronation, where nary a trace of a coronation oath is to be found, were all earlier than the Second Vatican Council. One was an article from an American review published in 1878.

I think it is going a bit far to say that somehow the evidence has been expunged by the Vatican.

Since papal coronations were public affairs, a qualified historian would be able to quickly find the proofs of its existence and use from a host of contemporary sources ranging from eyewitness accounts to diplomatic dispatches. Indeed, we could say that the burden of proof for the existence and continued use of this oath falls upon those claiming its authenticity.

Those of us who live near the Vatican know that it is run on a comparatively skeleton staff and a budget that is smaller than that of some major U.S. dioceses. If some Vatican offices cannot even manage to upload their own documents to the Internet, they are hardly capable of scouring libraries and archives around the world to remove obscure references to the coronation oath.

And all that presumably would be to remove a supposed oath that no pope would ever be obliged to take after election. The only authority that could install such an oath would be a pope. And no pope can bind a successor in such disciplinary matters as this.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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