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By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Washington (CNN) - "You've got something on your forehead."
Every year on Ash Wednesday it's how the awkward conversation begins. A well meaning co-worker points out a black smudge on someone's forehead, not knowing it's supposed to be there.
The smudge is the imposition of ashes, often on the forehead in the shape of a cross. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lenten season, when Christians take time to prepare for Easter through a time of fasting and prayer. The imposition of ashes nears a holy obligation for many Catholics, although technically it is not.
As two prominent Catholic presidential candidates take to the debate stage for the CNN Republican Presidential Debate in Mesa, Arizona, lots of people are asking will they or won't they wear ashes?
In the race for the Republican nomination for the White House, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have made no secret of their Catholic faith.
Santorum was born into a Catholic family and served as an altar boy. A Santorum aide told CNN that Santorum attended Mass Wednesday morning in Mesa, Arizona. He was spotted by CNN's Kevin Bohn after Mass at his hotel with ash on his forehead.
Gingrich converted later in life as an adult to Catholicism. The former House Speaker told CNN's Shawna Shepherd on Wednesday that he would not be going to Mass on Ash Wednesday. Though he said he's been in the past, Gingrich noted that Ash Wednesday is "not a holy day of obligation," referring to days on which Catholics are required to attend Mass.
Gingrich did say he was giving up dessert for Lent, while his wife Callista Gingrich joked that she was giving up "her opinion."
As the presidential hopefuls get ready to take the stage under the lights and pancake makeup on Wednesday night, what's a Catholic candidate to do?
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"There is no regulation or even a suggestion regarding how long the ashes remain," according to Monsignor Rick Hilgartner, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat of Divine Worship. Hilgartner helps the Catholic church in the United States oversee liturgical matters.
"Sometimes they just don't 'stick' for long, so if someone receives them in the morning they might simply brush off through normal routines later in the day," he said.
The ashes come from palm fronds, or the stems and leaves, used to celebrate Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week when Christians remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and being greeted like a king, with the crowd waving palm fronds and laying their coats on the ground. During Holy Week Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter Sunday marks the end of Holy Week and the end of any Lenten fasts.
In the Catholic tradition parishioners keep the palm fronds in their house all year, until the start of the Lenten season. The church then collects the fronds and burns them to create the ash.
Receiving ashes is a symbolic gesture, said Hilgartner. He notes in different countries the ashes are distributed in different ways. In Italy, for example, ashes are sprinkled over the top of the head. Last year on Ash Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI received his ashes sprinkled on the top of his head.
"Whatever the method, the symbolic gesture is just that...There is no discussion about what might be 'valid' or 'licit,'" he said.
The ashes are a physical reminder of mortality and a call to live a better life. In the Catholic tradition when they are applied a priest can say, "Remember man, from dust you came and from dust you shall return" or "Repent and believe in the Gospel."
Suppose a Catholic who happened to be running for president needed makeup for a televised debate, Hilgarten says there would be nothing wrong, "if out of necessity the ashes were removed in order to prepare makeup for a public appearance."
"It's not like a tattoo. They could get them and by the time they're doing their debate they could be gone," Monsignor Crosby Kern said. Kern is the pastor at the Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana.
"Catholics are not required to get ashes," Kern said. Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic liturgical calender, as Christmas, Easter, and several other days are.
While the New Orleans Police department may be busy on Mardi Gras night clearing Bourbon Street of tourists, Kern said come Ash Wednesday morning the faithful show up en mass to get their ashes.
"We're full at the cathedral. We have three masses and they'll all be full," he said.
While it may not be an obligation, it is an important tradition for millions of Catholics.
In Washington, politicians often are seen with ashes. Most notably in recent years, Vice President Joe Biden has been seen on past Ash Wednesdays with the ash on his forehead.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama released a statement on Ash Wednesday.
"Today, Michelle and I honor Ash Wednesday with Christians around the country and across the world," the statement said. "This is at once a solemn and joyous occasion, an opportunity to remember both the depths of sacrifice and the height of redemption. We join millions in entering the Lenten Season with truly thankful hearts, mindful of our faith and our obligations to one another."
With Gingrich choosing not to get ashes and Santorum receiving them, the question remains whether Santorum will make an effort to keep them for their time in the national spotlight.
–CNN's Shawna Shepherd, Dana Bash, and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.
Being as these candidates continually bring religion into the campaign by stressing how religious they are I would hope that the moderators of the this debate will actually question them on the actual tenets of their beliefs. Especially in areas that are in conflict with established scientific, legal and social norms of today.
People on earth still believe in god. I would rather go back to the future. This is not the time I wanted to born in.
How long are these creatures will stay ignorant?
Visualise from a distance you all are just small critters on a tiny planet you call earth.
Save yourselves! Save each other, try to exist and live longer.
"Back to the future"?
Sounds like the pot calling the kettle loony.
I wear condom instead.
The real question is "In doing so will the candidates be making asses of themselves?"
Will wearing ashes make them good Christians?
Wish this didn't matter to American politicians & voters one way or the other. (sigh)
They will probably wear the ashes because they're both ashholes.
Amen to that, Calvin. May we all look to God for guidance and follow His word always.
let us know when god tells you something...
Kids, this is called delusion. Say it with me now...
I will be very curious to know if god tells you something. Please do inform us.
calvin, oh puleeze...Jesus was Jewish, not a christian. He wanted his followers to be better Jews.
Do you mean to say that Jesus did not worship himself?
"Peter you are rock. And upon this rock, I will build My Church." You might want to check on that one again.
I bet Santorum not only shows up wearing ashes, but touches it up throughout the day.
Really, Gingrich is a Catholic? I'm not sure how I managed to miss that.
Of course he's a good catholic.
Just ask his third wife.
You are real relevant on this story, eh canuk? There's your sign
He converted to Catholicism recently... after the troubles with his family
He is a Catholic when it is convenient. When he starts hitting on wife # four, it will go out the window.
If Benazir Bhutto was alive and Gingrich became president, he would have thought about accepting Islam too.
Just another way for those Catholics to try and prove that they are religious and supposedly "Christian." Pathetic. How the rest of America sees this? If you have the ashes you're boasting your religion and trying to show the world, through an outward marking, that in fact you are true to your faith. If you don't have them, you aren't religious and should be shunned because obviously you aren't firm enough in your beliefs. (Hmm... I don't see anywhere in the Bible where this is talked about... let's have a CNN writer talk about that somewhere. Baptisms for the Dead — Romney and his LDS religion's beliefs — is actually in the Bible!)
Nevermind judging someone by how they act, treat others, or by what they say. Let's judge someone on whether or not they put ashes on their heads on a specific day. In addition, some of you might scoff at Romney for his special garments. He is always wearing those special garments. They are an inward expression of his faith. He doesn't need to prove his faith to any of you. Those garments are a reminder of promises he made with God. So why isn't he flaunting them to the world? If you're Christian at all, you should know the answer to that.
And if you don't know the answer, then I'll explain it simply. You don't know the character of someone's heart. You don't know how they truly are. And you have no right to judge someone based on their beliefs.
Anybody can act the part.
Sorry Mr. Izz, but I've never heard of Catholics "shunning" someone because that person didn't have ashes on Ash Wednesday. While that may have been your unfortunate experience with some individual Catholics, that is certainly not condoned. For crying out loud, even if someone is a Catholic you don't know if they are simply intending to go to a later Mass or not. Any Catholic who "shuns" someone because they do or don't have an outward display of faith is going against the message that they purport to believe in.
Santorum is, as any Catholic realizes, a Cafeteria Catholic. He picks and chooses what suits him politically. You'll notice, for instance, that he's not out there campaigning on an "abolish the death penalty" platform. Or a "all Americans should have health insurance" platform. Or a platform that unemployment insurance should be extended. All of these are part of the Catholic platform, as espoused by the Catholic bishops. True Catholics would believe in these things and advocate on their behalf. Santorum does not.
Not exactly proving your point.... unless your point was to make Mormons seem rather "un christian like" by tearing apart another Christian religion. Sad.
Dear Editor: ...and TO dust you shall return.
That is against everything Jesus taught...about being vain and seeking the glory of men...what? To show I'm more religious than you? Stop all the phony nonsense and get to the person who can fix the economy...Romney.
They should all bring ashes and 2x4x10 lumber and some large nails, and a big hammer. They can all ash each other and nail each other to crosses !! I will help the last one !! This is a stupid page on CNN and it should be removed. Religion is not news !!
As a public service, I agree to supply ashes for Newt and Santorum. Just let me light up another lovely Cuban Cohiba, and soon there will be plenty of ashes for both of you.
Slow news day? This article is pure speculation. Nothing has actually happened.....
Joe Biden wears his ashes proudly.
So Glad God does not see color! And certainly glad that God is not like man with their ignorant thoughts and hurtful ways!
The catholic faith is not the only faith aorund with its old traditions. Jesus came to do away with the old traditions of man. Jesus is the way the truth and the life. God help us to know the truth and follow Him and not man.
Jesus did not exist and God never did. Do some research and don't be a follower of stupid people. Jesus was fabricated by Greeks, they first wrote the story from Hindu stories of Krishna. If there was such a man he was a raghead from the middle east or a raghead from India, probably a Buddhist monk. As for God, its all in your stupid head, put there by your very stupid parents.
Orrrrr... "Peter, you are rock. And upon this rock, I will build my Church." Jesus came to abolish religion? You might want to check on that one again... He came to fulfill it.
You are forgetting one small thing. Jesus was in fact A MAN. A historical icon, who had some good ideas but became elevated to a savior by MEN. Stop worrying about preaching your faith and trying to convince others that it is real, and just live by the moral code you believe in.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.