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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?
CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories
"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.
I wish all Catholics would wear ashes 24/7/365. Would make them much easier to avoid.
Imported from a Christian neighborhood in Bethlehem these ashes are truly blessed. At Blessed Ashes Importers LTD our Lebanese Christian workers gather and burn Paliurus wood the same shrub that the Crown of Thorns placed upon Jesusess head was from. The wood is burned down to a fine light to medium gray Ash and is blessed by a Rabbi a Priest and an Imam(just in case right) and then packaged in small plexiglass vials just like the ones they use for crack.
God spoke to me this morning and he said someone out there watching me has horrendous back pain and he will perform a miracle for them when they send in a $200 donation to get the crack vile filled with blessed ashes. So don't delay because God want to give you a miracle and for a limited time we'll double your donation to $400 and send you not two but Three crack vials filed with blessed ashes.
Call now 1-800-miracle or call 1-888-blessash
re: the Obamas statement. Too bad your god couldn't figure out a better way for "salvation" than requiring a man be tortured to death and then saying this is a good thing. I wonder, what would hae happened if someone had done the *good* thing and saved this man? Would this god damn us for doing the truly right thing? I certainly would not want anyone to suffer for my supposed "sins" or the sins of two people this god intentionally made ignorant who were left alone with a "snake" that this god either didn't know was in the garden or intentionally wanted it there. Of course, this assumes that such a ridiculous story is true in the first place.
Why wouldn't a$$e$ wear ashes?
Just Rick. I'm sure for him it is part of his ongoing war on Satan.
Not interested in seeing them in ashes unless I can also see them in sackcloth!
"Gingrich did say he was giving up dessert for Lent, while his wife Callista Gingrich joked that she was giving up "her opinion."" What a good little wifey
Why is this even an issue! It will have nothing to do with the debate, election or anything else. CNN just likes to make an issue out of nothing. I am catholic, I got my ashes, now do you really think I care which one of the candidates did or did not elect to get theirs, NO, NO, NO.
if you would spend more time writing about the way our econimy and country is going would be more beneficial to all of us. LIke why isn't the government doing something about the rising gas prices, except passing the buck on to someone of something else.
how is the government going to affect gas prices in a free market?
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down
Wonder who will bring the sackcloth.
Ah, a perfect chance for Rick Sanctomoron to espouse his phony theology not based on the bible. Jesus never said, "And yea, my flock, wear ashes on your forehead so you can show everybody which sect you belong to and how you're willing to look a little bit silly for my dad."
they should all go all out and instead of Ash on their heads, they should all come in with santorum on their heads in support of the one in the lead in the polls!!!
What kind of stupid headline is that? Not one of them is Catholic. Would you ask the same thing if it was a Dem debate? I rarely visit this POS "news" site because it is nothing but political propaganda and a repeat of WH talking points and you didn't let me down again. You all should be ashaemd of yourselves. This is not even anything that remotely resembles news.
Uh...Gingrich and Santorum are catholic. In fact, Santorum is a cathaholic.
Santorum and Gingrinch are both Catholic.
Two of them are Catholic: Gingrich and Santorum.
Boy Georgia, you are completely poitically ignorant. I bet you vote Democrat.
Thanks for taking a break from fox news to give us that lesson in facts!!!!
Go back to Faux
Why do you said none of them are Catholic?
No, WinDinDallas, if you could read, you'd see your fellow confed votes repug.
Bob, this is a "progressive" site, like MSNBC. Even Democrats hate it.
This is indeed a foolish waste of time. Consider the pointless folly of daring someone to demonstrate their adherence to their religion. There are many more issues of more weighty importance that they might talk about in the debate, but CNN moderators seem bent on sticking to the gotcha questions.
CNN are not the ones making these guys declare their faith everytime they talk.
Originally I thought Rick would indeed wear ashes but I am going to change that. Instead I think he will still mention it but something along the lines of....such attention was made in the media today about whether or not I will wear them but I dont need to show any visible sign of my faith etc etc etc.
That way he gets his best of both worlds. He gets to declare his faith.....again, and he gets to moan about the media....again.
I hope Santorum wears the ashes. I hope Gingrich does not.
S already looks dopey. The ashes will accent that nicely.
I'm sure Pope Rick will, the others will also make a show of religion, which has NO place in our government. Period.
SSDD in the GOP; pander to the religious zealots to get the nomination, then ignore them once in office. They're a bunch that can be fooled endless times by the GOP charlatans who are just shills for big money and dirty agendas.
I am betting Santorum and Gingrich are having theirs re-applied after the makeup.... LOL. Perfect for them.
What do you mean wear their ashes, they all are a bunch of ASHES!!!!
Or is it ash holes
Santorum will most likely wear the ashes out of fear that if not he would be accused of caving in to the talk about him hearing and listening to the voices
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.