. . . and more ashes

Rita Ferrone’s much-appreciated reflection on catechizing and preparing lay ministers for the distribution of ashes has put me in mind of a couple of humorous anecdotes connected with that rite.

First, from Father Victor Lee Austin, Theologian-in-Residence at the Church of Saint Thomas, Fifth Avenue, in New York City:

Brian, a Dominican friend, once told of distributing ashes beside an old tottering priest who couldn’t remember the words. He was going from forehead to forehead saying, “This won’t hurt, and it might do some good.”

The second comes from my own experience. When I was working on my M.A. in Liturgical Studies at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville, MN, I would attended the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the neighboring Saint John’s Abbey Church. The year that Spring Break coincided with the beginning of Lent, the entire assembly sat in the monastic choir; I ended up beside an elderly monk who has since entered into eternal rest. He was a fine, friendly and truly holy man, but not strong of short-term memory.

The distribution took place in the choir, with terra cotta vessels of ashes being passed from person to person, stall to stall, with each ministering to her or his neighbor. Now this good monk had heard or read that the formula for distribution was to be the second option in the Ordinary Form, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”; but he was clearly attached to the older, “Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return.” Making a clear effort to remember the formula, he turned to me; lightly tracing the mark of mortality and resurrection on my forehead with the grainy ash, he declared:

“Remember you are dust, and turn away from the Gospel.”


  1. Hilarious!

    I have one, a true story, from one of my first parish positions–a large suburban parish with 12 weekend Masses and seemingly infinite numbers of worshippers on Ash Wednesday.

    The pastoral staff made a firm decision that ashes would ONLY be distributed at Mass or at a Service of the Word.

    One of the priests was distributing communion to a long line of people at one such Mass. A woman came up to him. He held up the host and said “The body of Christ.” She threw up her hands and said “What’s this?! I came for ASHES!”

  2. Always remember to slowly and clearly say what are perhaps the three hardest words in the Missal: “Bless these ashes.” It is very easy to mess that up!

  3. Several years ago a priest in our parish was distributing ashes. He made the cross on one man’s forehead and as he was saying ” Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” he realized he had used too much, so he leaned forward and whispered “You have some ash on your nose.” The man responded loudly “And also with you”

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