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Laypeople Distributing Ashes

And More on Non-ordained “Presiders”

ROME, FEB. 5, 2008 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: Are laypeople allowed to give out ashes on Ash Wednesday? At the Mass I attend on Ash Wednesday I would say there were more than enough priests present — obviously it would have taken longer — but I can’t think that the laypersons were actually needed as such. — C.McL., Greenock, Scotland

Q2: The priest sprinkled the ashes on our heads as if he were putting a pinch of salt into a recipe (rubbing his thumb and index finger over the head while reciting the prescribed words). As far as I can remember, the only method I’ve seen used in the past has been a cross on the forehead. I always thought that the cross on the forehead was a blessing with the ashes. Is there a correct and/or incorrect way of applying the ashes? — J.P., Montreal

A: With respect to the first question the Shorter Book of Blessings has a rite for the blessing and distribution of ashes outside of Mass. No. 1062 of this book has the following indication:

“This rite may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon.”

A lay minister may also lead a slightly varied version of the rite of distribution using ashes previously blessed by a priest or deacon, for example, when bringing ashes to the sick.

The Roman Missal makes no explicit mention of the use of lay ministers to assist in the distribution of ashes blessed during Mass. I believe, however, that the indication in the Book of Blessings also applies to this situation whenever such help proves necessary.

The second question regards the manner of imposing ashes. There are no set rules regarding this, and it largely depends on local custom.

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.

Many Catholics see this practice as a means of publicly showing their faith and leave the smudge on their forehead throughout Ash Wednesday.

In other countries, such as Spain, Italy and parts of Latin America, the prevailing custom seems to be sprinkling fairly dry ashes on the crown of the head. But even within these geographical areas, both customs are practiced and there may be other legitimate traditions as well.

The most important thing is to live the rite according to its true meaning. As No. 125 of the Directory for Popular Piety says:

“The act of putting on ashes symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being a merely external act, the Church has retained the use of ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called during Lent. The faithful who come to receive ashes should be assisted in perceiving the implicit internal significance of this act, which disposes them towards conversion and renewed Easter commitment.”

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Follow-up: Non-ordained “Presider”

In our article on non-ordained “presiders” (Jan. 22), we stated: “Only an ordained minister can, strictly speaking, preside at any liturgical act.”

This led some attentive readers to point out that both the Catechism (No. 1669) and canon law (Canon 230.3) explicitly mention that laypeople may “preside” over certain liturgical acts such as blessings, Liturgies of the Word with Holy Communion, and similar acts.

I thus believe that I owe my readers a clarification of my thought on this matter.

If the word “preside” means no more than liturgical leadership, then of course laypeople may preside over certain liturgical acts, especially when an ordained minister is not present. This, I believe, is the sense used in canon law.

It is not necessarily the sense used in the Catechism, as this number regards blessings, some of which laypeople may impart in virtue of the common priesthood and not as substitutes for an absent minister.

When I used the term “preside” in my earlier article, I used the term in a theological-liturgical and not in canonical context and probably should have made some pertinent distinctions.

For example, a layperson may lead a group in a liturgical act such as the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. But the leader does not, strictly speaking, preside. This is demonstrated by certain norms and changes in the rites such as the fact that he or she does not use the presidential chair and does not impart a blessing at the end.

Similar norms are observed when lay ministers lead Liturgies of the Word with distribution of Holy Communion. In these cases it is also recommended that if there are several ministers present, they should take charge of different moments of the celebration so that none appear to preside over the celebration.

From a theological perspective, the liturgical exercise of the royal or common priesthood either of an individual or of an assembly always requires hierarchical communion with the ordained ministry.

When an ordained minister is present, he thus presides in the sense that hierarchical communion is established through him. Thus the greeting and response: “The Lord be with you” / “And with your spirit,” and others like it.

If no ordained minister is present, then the assembly still implicitly establishes hierarchical communion with the ordained ministry by following the Church’s rites and texts through which it manifests the Church at prayer. In such cases the lay minister who leads guides or even presides (in the wider sense) over the assembly performs a liturgical service but is not the means through which the assembly establishes communion.

Although many blessings may be imparted by laypeople, No. 18 of the General Introduction to the Shorter Book of Blessings says that it belongs to bishops/priests/deacons to “preside” at certain blessings, but when referring to lay ministers it does not use the word “preside.” Rather, it says that lay ministers may “impart” or “celebrate” a blessing in virtue of their baptism and confirmation.

There are also different rites and formulas for when the blessing is given by an ordained or lay minister. Also, the canon cited as a source in the footnote to No. 1669 of the Catechism (Canon 1168) does not use the word “preside” but rather “administer” a blessing.

There are so many Church documents touching upon liturgy that the occasional apparent contradiction or confusion in terminology should not surprise us.

I hope that this clarifies our readers’ doubts and will not produce further fog. As always I am grateful for the care and attention given to these poor words.

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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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