Ashes

In many parishes the distribution of ashes (a sacramental) is an activity in which the priest or deacon is assisted by lay ministers (frequently chosen from among the extraordinary ministers of communion, but others may be chosen too). Lay ministers may be conducting a celebration of the Word and distributing blessed ashes in schools or nursing homes too, for example (see Book of Blessings 1656–1659).

I wanted to share an experience of something that worked well in a parish setting to prepare these ministers for their once-a-year service as distributors of ashes.

We met as a group a day or two before Ash Wednesday for some spiritual preparation as well as a rehearsal. Here is the outline, with some explanation of how it worked.

Prayer (This sets the tone, and can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. We used a combination of sung and spoken prayer.)

Introductions (Some did not know each other, so this was important not only so that they could work  in teams, but also to establish a sense of community among the ministers for the event.)

Faith sharing (The participants were invited to reflect on two questions: What does the ritual of ashes mean to you personally? and What do you think it means to the various people who come to receive ashes? They shared their responses in small groups for about 5 minutes. Then a few insights were named in the large group.)

Input (Very brief, highlighting the connection between this ritual and the Lenten observance, and perhaps sharing a personal story, drawing attention to the paschal mystery.)

Rehearsal (Practical matters were clarified such as making sure everyone knows their stations, when they are to come forward, what text they will use, how to handle clean-up, etc.)

Setting aside time for preparation, and above all grounding the experience in prayer and shared reflection, allowed the ministers to be more centered and recollected in their service. I also believe this is a natural moment for liturgical catechesis and community building around a specific liturgical event. The feedback was very positive!

13 comments

  1. I understand that a lay person can distribute ashes but cannot bless them – I was a bit disconcerted to see the ‘lay parish leader’ of our neighboring parish who led the distribution of ashes last year not only bless the ashes herself but call on the congregation to join her in blessing them. As it is not our parish, is this simply none of our business? If she did it out off ignorance, should someone instruct her? If she did it deliberately, should the pastor or bishop care?

    1. Knowing nothing of the circumstances, it’s difficult to comment on what would be the most effective (and charitable) response. I would assume ignorance and presume good will. Also, did she say “bless” or “join me in praying” or just what; I don’t know. The pastor may even have told her to bless the ashes; one just doesn’t know.

      It’s another reason why gatherings for formation are so important. Policing is thankless, but education is liberating because it allows the person to take a new look at what they do and voluntarily move toward better practices, supported by better understanding.

      Looking at this phenomenon from the ritual/pastoral aspect of things, one can see why more prayer might be wanted. Prayer allows people to “lean into” the event; it slows us down and deepens our focus. Personally, I wish that there were an alternative prayer to be used when distributing ashes already blessed. There are analogies. One is the alternative minor exorcism prayers that may be used when anointing with the oil of catechumens, if the oil is already blessed by the bishop. These prayers pray for the people gathered. Or the several formularies for thanksgiving over water already blessed, used during the Easter season. They heighten our appreciation of the substance used and turn our heart to God.

      But I agree with you, one should observe the rubrics–“lay leaders” as well as clergy. As someone who works with both clergy and lay ministers, I know the scorecard on this is mixed. Many’s the time I’ve wanted to hit somebody over the head and say “Just do it! It’s right there on the page; can’t you read?!” But improvement is a long-term goal to be pursued with patience and respect for the persons involved. We can’t correct everybody, but we can be on the side of good training and inservicing and eventually it does make a difference.

  2. It is possible that she was uttering a prayer of blessing, rather than doing an act of blessing.

    In any case, many people misunderstand the theology of blessing. I have a priest friend who, when asked “Please, Father, will you bless my rosary?” always replies “No!” And then, after the short disconcerting silence that follows, adds “but I’ll ask God to!” And that is precisely the point. None of us, ordained or lay, can bless; we can only invoke God’s blessing on someone or something.

    Parents often bless their children; we may say “Bless you” when someone sneezes; at the end of some liturgies, people may sign each other’s foreheads with the sign of the cross, and so on. A priest does not say “I bless you” but “May almighty God bless you”.

    One of the problems is that many people think that when someone or something is blessed, some kind of magical process akin to transubstantiation takes place. It doesn’t, of course. All we can do is pray that through God’s action those who are affected by the person or thing being blessed will receive God’s grace; but the person or thing is not actually changed in any way. The common mentality is that the status of the person giving the blessing is somehow a factor as well. Thus, a medal blessed by the Pope is somehow of more intrinsic value than one blessed by a priest. This is effectively putting limits on the way God acts within the lives of God’s people.

    Having said all this, there are certain blessings, and gestures of blessing that are traditionally reserved to those who are ordained. I do not know what the lay parish leader in Ceile’s neighboring parish actually did, but it seems possible that she asked the congregation to join her in praying for God’s blessing on the ashes, which is rather different from actually giving a blessing.

  3. Actually, Mr. Inwood, what you are saying is incorrect and does not accord with Catholic teaching and practice.

    Blessings are sacramentals and as such do not change the essence of objects or persons such as the Sacraments do. But that does not mean they do not affect them at all. The Church has in fact been given power in this world by its divine Spouse also over inanimate objects, and thus the blessing of the Church can really impart a sacred quality to objects without altering their essence. Such happens when a chalice is consecrated, for instance: the chalice is set permanently apart for sacred use for as long as it is intact and may not be turned to profane use; any profanation of it constitutes sacrilege.

    The administration of blessings is governed by the positive law of the Church and is first and foremost a matter of jurisdiction, but the Church has restricted the ordinary faculties to perform blessings to the sacerdotal orders. Only in very limited cases may Deacons perform blessings, and only as provided for by positive law. Although it could theoretically do so, the law does not, as far as I know, provide for blessings to be performed by laymen.

    Thus a layman really cannot bless a corporal, for instance, or at least not in the same way as a priest does. He may piously wish that God imparts his blessing upon it, but God is free not to grant his wish. However, since God has delegated authority to His Church to bless such things, when a person to whom the Church has given faculties blesses it it is truly and objectively blessed.

  4. I should say that the blessing of persons is a different matter than the blessing of objects. When a person is blessed he is not set apart for sacred use, but rather God’s grace is invoked upon him (but the reception of this grace depends upon his acceptance of it, which is not the case with objects).

    Here the principle has been applied that a baptized lay person may impart a blessing on someone if he has spiritual jurisdiction over him: thus parents may bless their children and abbesses may bless their nuns. It is gravely improper for any adult layman to attempt to impart a blessing on another adult layman, or even children not his own. However, a priest may always bless any person by virtue of the spiritual jurisdiction he exercises over all men as priest – but this jurisdiction is constitutive of the priestly character; it stems precisely from his ordination and is not a matter of positive law. This is seen from the fact that a priest may bless non-Catholics over whom he has no jurisdiction provided for in positive law.

    (It should also be noted that it is not considered proper for a priest to bless a bishop without his express consent; this is reflected in the traditional ceremonial of the Church)

  5. Canon 1168 simply says that “in accord with the norm of the liturgical books and according to the judgment of the local ordinary, some sacramentals can also be administered by lay persons who are endowed with the appropriate qualities.” It does not speak of “spiritual jurisdiction.” The 1985 commentary gives the example (among others) of a special ministry of the Eucharist blessing a communicant. The commentary to canon 1167 says that the former distinction between invocative blessings and constitutive blessings (making an object sacred) is no longer found. Canon 1166 simply says that all sacramentals are “sacred signs.”

  6. Thank you, Dom Anthony. I know what Canon 1168 says, but I assumed that “administration of sacramentals” does not refer to what is traditionally regarded as blessings. Perhaps I was wrong?

    At any rate I was arguing from the traditional Catholic view on this, not that prevailing within the last 40 years. I think we ought to recognize that the concept of blessings has changed dramatically with the advent of the new rites. The new formulas for blessings are, with few exceptions, nothing like the old ones, and there are some commentators who argue that the new formulas do not contain the elements constitutive of blessings and thus are not blessings at all.

    I don’t know what merit this opinion has, but to me it certainly seems that there is now a great confusion as to the definition of a blessing. The new code is very vague on this – it only speaks of sacramentals in general. I do not understand the commentary you are referring to – it would seem to imply either that all blessings are now invocative or that all blessings are constitutive, but which is it? It seems to be the former, but Canons 1205-1213 clearly speaks of “sacred places” that have a “sacred character.” These are blessed, not with a simple blessing, but with a “dedication” – I am not really into the terminology here, but it would seem to correspond to the former “consecration”. So the concept of constitutive blessings must still exist, even if they are only now used for places rather than objects.*

    *But since the Church still provides for the use of the old Ritual, constitutive blessings of objects are certainly still valid and would be presumed to have the same effects as they formerly did even though Canon Law does not seem to make provisions for them.

  7. Gideon Ertner said at #7,

    The new formulas for blessings are, with few exceptions, nothing like the old ones, and there are some commentators who argue that the new formulas do not contain the elements constitutive of blessings and thus are not blessings at all.

    I’d like to know more about your assertion that the Ordinary Form blessings lack the efficacious quality of the Extraordinary Form blessings. Are you referring to the blessings of the Mass and other sacraments, or other ritual blessings? It’s certainly possible that poor translations of blessings obscure valid formulas.

    Fr. Anthony Ruff said at #6,

    The 1985 commentary gives the example (among others) of a special ministry of the Eucharist blessing a communicant.

    There has been internet hearsay among traditional Catholics about EMHC abuses, such as blessing babies or young children. I’m not one to talk about EMHCs since the bi-ritual parishes I go always restrict the distribution of Communion to priests or deacons even in the Ordinary Form. Still, I’ve always been uneasy about the laity distributing Holy Communion because there’s a high chance that extraordinary ministers will copy Father’s actions. I’m concerned that “lay ministers” might use vague statements (possibly as contained in the 1985 or other commentaries) to substantiate blessing babies and other strictly sacerdotal activities.

  8. I’d like to know more about your assertion that the Ordinary Form blessings lack the efficacious quality of the Extraordinary Form blessings.

    Sure, Mr. Zarembo. The problem lies not in the celebration of the Sacraments, but in the blessings contained in the De Benedictionibus, the successor of Part II of the Rituale Romanum. I don’t have any link to theological critiques at hand, but a cursory look of the so-called ‘blessings’ contained in them reveals that not one of them is actually a blessing of objects, but rather of the persons using them. So the objects cannot properly be called ‘blessed’. The persons using them might still receive a ‘blessing’ from their use, but it is kind of a roundabout way of making the grace of God work and is in any case a very different concept of blessing from the traditional one.

    The changes that were made to the ritual of Excorcism are much more problematic because, according to a number of Exorcists, they actually impede their efforts to combat Satan. See the following critique by the Chief Exorcist of Rome: http://www.christianorder.com/features/features_2004/features_mar04_bonus.html

    These changes were, following standard procedure in the contemporary Church, crafted by a ‘commission’ of which none of the members had any idea about what an exorcism is.

  9. Interesting comments, thank you. The lady in question called on the congregation to “join her in blessing the ashes” which were about the be distributed. I am quite clear about her words as my wife, who was looking to convert to Catholicism, was as appalled as I was. We left and never went back. Luckily there is a more orthodox parish nearby.

  10. I don’t mean to direct this at one person because I’ve seen it many places. I suspect it’s not done intentionally, but calling one place “orthodox” or “more orthodox” can seem to mean that the other place is “not orthodox” or “less orthodox.” I’m a stickler about words. A practice can be wrong or illegal or illicit or ill-advised or pastorally inappropriate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean orthodoxy is involved at all. When defining dogma, the church takes orthodoxy and heterodoxy very seriously. On matters of much lesser importance, we should be careful not to accuse anyone of heterodoxy carelessly.
    awr

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