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?

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

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

soundoff (557 Responses)
  1. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you fat.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
    Prayer wastes time.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Michael

      And arguing against prayer is also a waste of time. Those of us who believe will never stop because an unbeliever has a difference of opinion, so I guess we're even.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  2. Ted in California

    Why does anyone believe these two are Christians? They surely don't act like Christians; moreover, they do not seem to follow Christian tenets.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  3. anthony

    I hope the Obama's release a statement on Clean Monday February 27th for the commencement of Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Church.......

    February 22, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  4. CoJo

    Graham and Santorum certainly have the right to their opinions on abortion or any other topic. But there is SUPPOSE to be this freedom of religion in the US which THEY do not preacher nor practice. Their actions speak louder than any of their words!!! Supposedly this country (and the catholic religion) was built on freedom of choice. If that is true, why are they pushing their religous bigotry???

    February 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  5. george of the jungle

    this is a really stupid blog. Must not be enough real news today. The one person was right lots of denominations celebrate with ashes not just Catholics. I agree with you scott. No intellegent life here.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  6. Larry in Houston

    @Publius Novus – You Are Spot On . It's not just Catholics – It's all Christian Religions. It's common in all of them. I've seen Baptists & Lutherans do the ash thing, also.

    February 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • chief

      thats bs

      February 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  7. Debbie

    1) Sacramental not a sacrament. 2) Other Catholics in Gov will have them today ie: Biden, Pelosi, 3) Really a non story.

    February 22, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • SPA Knight

      The only difference is that Biden and Pelosi do not live their life according to their Catholic faith and Santorum does.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  8. JD in Moraga

    Ashes on the forehead today, knife in the back tomorrow.

    February 22, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  9. Publius Novus

    As usual, the MSM missed the observance of Ash Wednesday in the wider world of Christendom and in particular with respect to Ron Paul. The practice of receiving ashes on a communicant's forehead on Ash Wednesday is common in much of Christendom, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians), Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and some Baptist denominations. Ron Paul is a Baptist. Will Ron Paul wear ashes tonight?

    February 22, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  10. And the real believers are.....

    Santorum and Newt should proudly display their ashes and challenge Romney to show his Mormon beliefs by wearing his magic underwear!

    February 22, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  11. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Oh, I am certain that Santorum will probably have his campaign pay to fly a priest he can trust to administer the ashes. After all, he probably would not accept them from a priest known to espouse a more liberal philosophy than his, especially as that person would probably not be a "Real American" in his and Sarah's eyes.

    February 22, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  12. Max


    This article is TOTALLY IRRELEVANT....the architect of this article needs to get something RELEVANT to write about. This is politics, not CATHOLICISM.

    Notice: The website heading is 'CNN POLITICAL TICKER' and not 'CNN CATHOLICISM TICKER'

    February 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  13. MJ Taylor

    It's clear from his history that Newt like to get ash outside of his marriage. He's good for America.

    February 22, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  14. FIELD1stSGT


    February 22, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • MNTaxpayer

      Turn off your talk radio and grow a brain.

      February 22, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • alanpgr


      February 22, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • A

      I think you need to refill your medication.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • wootdude

      Settle down, Francis.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Nutjobs

      I suppose that when Bush used exeutive orders that was just A-OK with you? How about Bush Sr. Clinton? Reagan? They all have done it. Obama has actually used executive orders less frequently than several of his predecessors. But go ahead, continue to believe in your kooky conspiracy theories. But please be willing to consider the fact that you are not only a whack job, but a hypocrite as well.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • manyote

      And turn off your Caps Lock too while you're at it. Just move your left pinkie over one and hit that key and it will desengage. And after you desengage the Caps Lock, try, if at all possible, to engage your brain before posting your crapola.
      1st sarge my hiney. Maybe a sgt-wannabe.

      February 22, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  15. scott

    So far I see no evidence of intelligent life on this blog.

    February 22, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Kardashian Chainsaw Massacre

      You won't see any in your mirror either

      February 22, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  16. OS Bird

    Wearing ashes
    Eating kippers
    And all are wearing
    Ruby slippers.
    Thank you. Thank you very much.

    February 22, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    February 22, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • Scott

      Yes, it changes things. It changes my opinion about the guy next to me talking to his hands to his imaginary friend.

      February 22, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things

      February 22, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • JD in Moraga

      Things change prayer.

      February 22, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • mmaxum2002

      Nothing fails like prayer

      February 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |

      Yes, lets all pray to some ridiculous made up deity because we're too scared to live our lives without some fake crutch... what a ridiculous concept, are you stuck on the f'ing lala land? wake the hell up dummy, your nuthin but worm food when you die.... If you cant be a good person without some fairy tale character telling you what to do... then there's little hope for you either way.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  18. Stand Tall For The Lord!!!

    Wear that smudge! Show the world that you are proud of your subservience to Bronze Age Middle Eastern superstitions. Take pride in your conformism to a belief system that is totally lacking any evidence whatsoever! Let people know that you fear the revenge of a supernatural being that has never been proven to exist, and who does not care if you are good, only that you are loyal.

    Mark yourself for us all to know what a rube you are.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • Brian

      Wow, your view's are so cool and shocking. You must be like the first person to ever post this on a CNN article.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • Every tongue shall bow, every knee will confess

      We will keep repeating it until you realize that there really is no evidence, that your religion has no more validity than any other religion, and that the only reason you believe is that you grew up with it and conformed, or your life bottomed out and you got desperate enough to believe anything, and conformed.

      No evidence at all. None. We will happily keep repeating that until you get it.

      No god, no heaven, no hell.
      No god, no heaven, no hell.
      No god, no heaven, no hell.
      No god, no heaven, no hell.
      No god, no heaven, no hell.
      No god, no heaven, no hell.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      ...and since you have equally no evidence that God does not exist .... we will keep on our path and believe that you will also walk the path of Faith. 🙂

      No evidence that there is not a God 🙂
      No evidence that there is not a God 🙂
      No evidence that there is not a God 🙂
      No evidence that there is not a God 🙂
      No evidence that there is not a God 🙂
      No evidence that there is not a God 🙂

      Welcome to the party my friend .....

      February 22, 2012 at 3:42 am |
    • Downton Abbey 101

      No evidence that there is not a 1957 Chevy orbiting Pluto. 🙁
      No evidence that there is not a 1957 Chevy orbiting Pluto. 🙁
      No evidence that there is not a 1957 Chevy orbiting Pluto. 🙁
      No evidence that there is not a 1957 Chevy orbiting Pluto. 🙁
      No evidence that there is not a 1957 Chevy orbiting Pluto. 🙁
      No evidence that there is not a 1957 Chevy orbiting Pluto. 🙁

      Welcome to the world of crazy logic, my friend. 🙁

      February 22, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • Tullius

      There's no scientific evidence for God, true. But science is not the only method of arriving at knowledge. There are the purely rational epistemologies, like math and metaphysics. We derive our knowledge of God from metaphysics.

      February 22, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Publius Novus

      If the existence of God could be proven, then religion would not be based on faith. It would be based on science. You really don't get it, do you?

      February 22, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  19. Reality

    It makes no difference. Why you ask?

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country "ain't" going to help a "pro-life" presidential candidate, i.e Mitt Romney, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the "Immoral Majority" rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The "Immoral Majority" you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million "Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers" of aborted womb-babies" whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million "IM" voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for "pro-life" JM.

    And the irony:

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the "Stupid Majority"?)

    The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.

    February 21, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
    • wootdude

      So does this mean you don't support Santorum who doesn't believe in birth control at all?

      February 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  20. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    Ashes to ashes
    Dust to dust
    If the women don't get you
    Then the whiskey wust

    February 21, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • Downton Abbey 101

      Ashes to ashes,
      Dust to dust,
      If the flu don't gat ya,
      The bill collector must.

      February 22, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • Publius Novus

      So what's a "wust?"

      February 22, 2012 at 10:44 am |
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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.