Ashes to Ashes: A Follow-Up

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum University.

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Follow-up: Ashes and How to Impose Them

[Editor’s note: Father McNamara hopes to resume his regular question-and-answer column next.]

In the wake of our Feb. 17 article, a priest wrote concerning the imposition of ashes on the forehead:

«Out of sheer curiosity, would you be able to enlighten me as to the sources for your answer concerning the imposition of ashes. Your answer was to the effect that ‘In most English-speaking countries the prevailing custom seems to be that the priest places enough holy water into the ashes to form a kind of paste. The ashes are then daubed in the form of a cross on the forehead. Relatively little water is required, and the mix should not be excessively liquid.’ As a priest of 48 years and one that has been involved in the study of liturgy, I have never encountered a rubric or even mention of the custom of imposing ash-paste on the faithful. I never read of such a practice until your mention of it and certainly have never done it or remember it being done. I look back to my childhood — which by revealing that I am 48 years post-ordination is a few years at best — and can never remember it being done anywhere I have ever been.»

Perhaps the word “paste” was not the best choice, as I can see that this would indicate something different from what is, in fact, the case. I was trying to bring out the fact that in many European countries the ashes are totally dry and are imposed by the priest sprinkling the ashes upon the crown of the head by rubbing them between his fingers and usually without physically touching the head at all.

In most English-speaking countries the priest touches the forehead of the person receiving ashes and leaves a cross. In order to do so, the ashes usually need to be at least moist and not totally dry; otherwise, at most, one achieves a barely visible smudge and leaves more ashes on the floor than on the forehead.

I — unsuccessfully — tried to express this difference of method with the word paste and apparently caused confusion for some readers.

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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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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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