Will presidential candidates wear ashes at Wednesday debate?
Pope Benedict XVI is annointed with the placing of ashes during the Ash Wednesday service at the Santa Sabina Basilica on February 17, 2010.
February 21st, 2012
10:11 PM ET

Will presidential candidates wear ashes at Wednesday debate?

Editor's note: Tune in Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET for the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday, the CNN/Arizona Republican Party Debate hosted by John King. Follow it on Twitter at #CNNDebate and on Facebook at CNN Politics. For real-time coverage of the Arizona and Michigan primaries, go to CNNPolitics.com or to CNN apps or the CNN mobile site.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Newt Gingrich • Politics • Rick Santorum

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    This is the rusqeet that the apostles bring to Jesus. Jesus responds by praying the Our Father. He not only taught the apostles, but in turn, us as well. The Our Father is one of the most beautiful examples of how each of us can approach God the Father with respect, love and trust.But prayer for Jesus is more than talking to God the Father. It is living for the Father. It is dying for you. What is prayer to you? Prayer should be your whole life, every thought, every word, every action. The best way to make your whole life part of your prayer to the Father is to accept the cross (or crosses) he brings into your life. If you say yes to the Father's will and decide to carry the cross He has for you, then your whole life will become a prayer. A prayer of yes. There is no greater honor you can give to God the Father than to follow His only Son's example and say yes to His will for you. God the Father will reward you with many blessings and graces. He will ensure that you have the strength to carry your cross. Jesus will bring love and healing into your life through the cross. And Jesus will never leave you. He will stay with you as you carry your cross.References :

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  5. A Reasoner

    Maybe they could just sacrifice a goat on the podium instead, or prove their faith by preparing to sacrifice their children until the TV voice over tells them, "hold the knife!" It would be a much more dramatic way of demonstrating who is the most holy, least rational, and therefore most desirable in the eyes of the GOP.

    February 24, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  6. Kristin

    If they are true to their faith, they should. You don't push God away just because you have a debate. I think that most of you on here are not Christians or you would have been adult about it and been respectful. You should go read TMZ or something...where your comments belong.

    February 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Here's what I don't get. It is not a requirement to keep the ashes on throughout the entire day. I know this because I used to be catholic. So if they are wearing ashes, and it looks like it was just put on, that is pandering and showboating. If they do not have any on at all, then some may see them as not true to their faith. The only thing they could concievebly do is get the ashes at whatever time they were planning and let the chips fall as they may. Anything other than that is merely political posturing.

      February 23, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Joseph

      Kristin -

      Who really cares......

      Lot of symbolism, but no or little substance with the Religious far right.
      If you get ashes on your forhead on Ash Wednesday wear them thru the day or not, I could care less.
      Do something to help others, that would impress me a lot more -- AND I'm sure God, too....

      February 24, 2012 at 1:30 am |
  7. Crum

    Santorum will, Romney won't, With Obama you won't be able to tell.

    February 23, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • Kyser

      and you sir, winz Trollz. Applause.......

      February 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm |

    No kidding? I can't even post "circ*umstance!"

    February 23, 2012 at 2:22 am |
  9. skarphace

    How did you get it to let you say fu cks and sh it?

    February 22, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
    • skarphace

      Crap. That was meant as a reply. Doh!

      February 22, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
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    February 22, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
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About this blog

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.