Who can repent on Ash Wednesday?

A Pray Tell reader sends in something from the parish bulletin:

Because the blessed ashes imposed on the forehead symbolize our mortality and call us to repent of sinfulness, in addition to the adults, ashes will be given only to children who are old enough to have received the sacrament of reconciliation. The Church does not recognize the child’s ability deliberately to commit sin that is in need of repentance until the age of ‘reason’ (age 7).

There’s a certain logic to that. But I predict it won’t go over with the parents very well. And I wonder if there isn’t a case to be made for the ‘pre-reason’ tykes receiving ashes just to habituate them in the ritual practice, with intellectual understanding coming later.

What do you think?


  1. I don’t see anything wrong with smearing a child’s forehead with ashes and saying to the child, “Be a good kid. Listen to your mother and father.” Enough for a kid to “get”.

    Even a wee one can be given ashes “just to show you’re a Catholic kid.”

    It’s not devaluating the meaning of the ashes but including the young ones among the community which acknowledges wrong, does penance and rejoices in grace.

  2. I noticed that many ministers of ashes in our parish would say the words suggested by John’s post when placing the ashes on the foreheads of children, rather than the ritual words “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” I, on the other hand, use the ritual words even for small children. I do this because it is a teachable moment. Children learn the prayer of the church by experiencing it – especially at a very young age.

  3. Fr. Ruff – just strikes me initially as if “canon law” over-rules the sacramental experience of our communities. That is turning the gospel upside down.

    To paraphrase the old saying – law of the ruler is surpassed by the rule of law…..so, literal canon law of the church is surpassed by the rule of sacramentality of the church.

    We celebrate as a community without distinction by age, gender, race, etc.

  4. The traditional formula, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” would seem appropriate no matter what the age of the recipient. Last I check, even those too young to commit actual sin still suffer the malum poena.

  5. Thomas Merton’s wonderful essay in Seasons of Celebration, “Ash Wednesday,” tells us that, “The cross of ashes, traced upon the forehead of each Christian, is not only a reminder of death but inevitably (though tacitly) a pledge of resurrection….Finally, the ashes themselves are like spiritual medicine, like all the sacramentals. The fruits of these apparently sterile ashes are wonderfully rich! Great is the secret power imparted to them by the influence of the risen body of Christ, who by His victory has become ‘life-giving Spirit.’” On that basis, seeing the ashes not only as a call to penance but as a promise of resurrection and “rich” “spiritual medicine,” why should any believer be excluded?

    1. But one could well turn around and say: “why should believers who are well need the medicine”? Merton also says a couple of lines later, explaining his “pledge of the resurrection”: “The declaration that the body must fall temporarily into dust is a challenge to spiritual combat, that our burial may be ‘in Christ’ and that we may rise with Him to ‘live unto God’. The ashes of this Wednesday are not merely a sign of death, but a promise of life to those who do penance.”

  6. As a mother, I’d like to point out that the first time a priest leaned over and put ashes on my little boy’s forehead and said “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” my heart about stopped. It’s one thing to be told that you’re going to die; it’s another thing entirely to hear someone say that to your child. I’m not at all saying it shouldn’t be done–I’m all for including children in the rituals of Ash Wednesday, and I always have my boys with me–but I just wanted to point out that it can have a profound effect on the parent as well as the child. We tend to assume that our own mortality is what should grab our attention–but sometimes it’s other people’s . . .

  7. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”

    I agree that it is a wonderful teachable moment for children of any age, even if they are not yet of an age where they can learn (as far as we can tell).

  8. Perhaps I’m actually in agreement with the above commenters, but I think both options have merit. I can see why a reminder of corporal death but true resurrection is a wonderful teaching opportunity; on the other hand, I’m not so sure about imposing a physical sign of sin on those not mentally or intellectually capable of committing sin outside of the original one which we all bear. A tough call, I think.

    1. In my parents parish the pastor has strongly encouraged families with infants and very young children to go to the low Mass with hymns and not the lengthy high Mass.

      Yes, the choir’s excellent Poulenc Mass should be heard in reverent silence. Yet a baptized infant has just as much right to participate in the Mass as adult who can sit in silence for the better part of an hour and a half. If an infant’s parents wish to hear the high Mass, then they should not be inhibited from doing so. The absolute denial of infant attendance at a certain Mass because of its musical quality or length of the liturgy implies that any baptized person is not welcome at all Masses. Quite the opposite — the baptized child must be at Mass, even if its the lengthy and ornate Mass, simply because he or she should be present for the Sacrifice every Sunday.

      Similarly, even if a baptized child does not understand the significance of the imposition of ashes, he or she still receives the sign-meaning. The blessing is not dependent on recognition of meaning; in fact, the reality of death precedes individual recognition of its eventuality. The mystery of death will unfold for the child as he or she grows in an understanding of faith.

  9. Would we discourage children under the age of reason from participating in the penitential rite at Mass? There is a difference between sacramentals and Sacraments.

    This tidbit from the Directory on popular piety and the liturgy suggests that the symbolism extends beyond repentance for individual sin, so why would you restrict it to those who have not yet reached the age of reason?

    “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.”

    1. “Would we discourage children under the age of reason from participating in the penitential rite at Mass?”

      Yes. A friend of mine recently observed a young child of about 3 standing on a pew in church, thumping his chest and loudly saying “my fault, my fault, my fault” until his mother shushed him. Everyone who heard this story was appalled. It was out of time, and the exaggerations accompanying it showed it to be grotesque.

      “…ashes to symbolize that attitude of internal penance to which all the baptized are called”

      It is not clear to me that this “call” to an attitude of inner penance is necessarily experienced yet, in early childhood.

      Sofia Cavalletti had this to say in The Religious Potential of the Child: “It is obvious that moral education and also a certain kind of preparation for struggle and sacrifice are necessary. But there is “a time for everything,” as Ecclesiastes says, and early childhood is not the time for moral effort. In our view, early childhood is a period of tranquil growth when the child, still free from cares of any kind, can give himself completely–and does give himself if the conditions permit him–to the enjoyment of the persons and things he has been given. After the age of six other factors come into consideration, and the child’s horizon will no longer be so clear. The time for accentuating man’s work will come, the time for the invitation to moral commitment on the behavioral plane will come, but we must not anticipate or confuse the times. If we do, we preclude the child’s access to that aspect of God the child most needs. In our estimation, we compromise the child’s very moral formation, which should be based on love, and should be the response of the child’s love to the love God first gave him. We confuse, as we shall say later, the face of God Himself.” (p. 87)

      1. Point taken. Though I guess in practice I would be reluctant to shush a child less enthusiastically mimicking the adults. As you point out, they grow into awareness, and this is one of the ways in which I think they do, by watching and trying. I wouldn’t necessarily encourage it, but neither would I edit out every expression of repentance for a child at Mass (the Our Father?).

        I would leave ashes up the parents and the child.

  10. I say we consider loosening up here. Common sense need not be opposed to important ritual practices. The words that accompany the ritual imposition of Ashes are about a call to repentance. I impose ashes even on babies but I certainly don’t have to accompany that with any words but just a smile. This includes the babes in arms as well as the toddlers all the way up to pre-first penance kids. Thomas Merton?!

  11. Too much emphasis on individual piety. We come to Ash Wednesday as a people in need of repentance, and we are all part of that people. Whenever anyone tries to limit ashes to the over-age-7 crowd I remember the first reading of the day:
    “Proclaim a fast,
    call an assembly;
    Gather the people,
    notify the congregation;
    Assemble the elders,
    gather the children
    and the infants at the breast”

  12. Being in Sin is only possible by the free choice of a rational adult? Sin is exactly guilt? Oh boy! Sin as legal category? guilt? No. no . no.

    LIfe and death; falling and rising; being caught up in broken human nature – and becoming free. Grace is for all sorts and conditions of people. Repentance is more than the act of contrition for a specific “act.” Get over the legal categories. Or at least do not constrict the liturgy to them. The liturgy ought to take us into a deeper dimension.

  13. “Don’t be naughty and follow Jesus.” I don’t know. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” was an exhortation even my little ones got. And the ritual is operative beyond the linguistic reality, no? The environment? The hymnody? The solemn procession? The shift of season from the pancakes the night before?!?

  14. I’m amazed that this topic even needs to be discussed.

    Remember that infants are baptized: cleansed of sin and brought into communion with the Church, without realization. And not only that, but Greek Catholic infants are baptized, chrismated (confirmed), and receive the Eucharist. Again, without realization. It ain’t all a show folks. It means something and has an effect, just like ashes.

  15. Sigh…yet another example of the mistaken view that liturgy must be aprehended cognitively before it can be aprehended experientially.

  16. The ashes are a sign not only to the one upon whose forehead they are placed, but also — and even more so — a sign to those who view them.

    The ashes on a child’s forehead speak to the community, saying (a) I am a child of God, as fully as anyone else; (b) I share, in my own particular way, in the brokenness of the world; (c) I long, in my own particular way, for the healing of that brokenness; and (d) I turn, in my own particular way and with the help and guidance of the adults in my life, to the cross for that healing.

    At a conference on children in worship, Mark Searle told the assembled scholars about a time when he was approaching mass at Notre Dame with his young daughter (five or six years old?). She stopped at the door, turned to him, and said “You know, when we go inside, you’re not my father any more. You’re my brother.”

    The young know more than we give them credit for, and we are often blessed if we pay attention to what they say to us.

  17. Since there is no Church rule about this, let charity and the parent’s wishes prevail.

    Why stop the little ones or force them?

  18. I think this is absurd. Would they tell me also that I cannot correct my children when they do wrong until they are 7? If I can be expected to teach my five year old that hitting his sister is wrong, he is in some degree capable of understanding sin, even if his development prevents him from having the same culpability in sin that, for example, I do. Then why can he not receive ashes? If until a child is seven we treat him as if he has no moral agency and none of his actions are morally meaningful, how can he be expected to learn what is right so as to go to first reconciliation?

    I also +1 those who pointed to the ashes as signs of the wages of sin and our shared mortality. Our understanding of what liturgy is for children needs serious reconsideration. It is not individual repentance and payment for sin, nor is it merely a teaching moment, it is a participation in the ongoing salvation of God, which is always adequate to our needs and grows with us.

  19. Minor point? Rubrics say ashes are placed “on [one’s] head”, not forehead. Perhaps so that noone can see that we are fasting except our Father who is hidden….

  20. Distributing ashes in our local Primary School I say to the children under seven “Live like Jesus”. This is a line from the Act of Sorrow/contrition that is said here in Ireland

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