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. jack

    Callista looks like she has owl eyes... check out the google images

    February 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • jack

      you are oh so wise, ye GREAT ONE!! fill us with your wisdom.... for we doooooooo BELIEVE!!!!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  2. Ben

    What CNN is really saying is "Can we portray them as not as faithful as they claim or mock them as zealots." Shame on you.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • jack

      FAITHFUL to whatttttttttttttttttttttttt?

      February 22, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  3. jack

    i hope they wear crosses, ashes, carry blibles, and speak in tongues... only show how out of touch they are with america.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • bill

      are you from amerika? how out of touch are they?

      February 22, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  4. clarke

    Come on CNN, Have you gone over the edge

    February 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  5. fandancy

    Who cares?

    February 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  6. Danny

    It was so amazing to see so many people I passed this morning on my way to work in Midtown Manhattan, with ash on their forehead in observance of Ash Wed! As an Orthodox Jew who always wears a yarlmulka/Kippah on my head and thereby always proudly display my love and pride of Judaism and my being Jewish, it's nice to see some Christians stepping out and wearing their religion "on their sleeve " (or their forehead 🙂 . For anyone interested in learning more about Judaism (after all Jesus WAS Jewish) I am the 4th generation owner of the world's oldest Judaica company-J Levine Judaica, now celebrating 120 years and, thank G-d, 5 generations!

    February 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Mark Knox

      Great comments, Danny.

      February 22, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • bill

      mark, do you not see that obama is ardently opposed to the survival of Israel? no god, no religion, no compass but "whatever I feel is right for me."

      February 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • Hart

      Beautiful reaction Danny!

      February 22, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  7. Charlou

    This is going to far to start questioning or talking jokingly about a religious day or about how much of a christian or anyother religion . If they would focus as much on the country and what is going on now maybe we could move forward and get our country back on track , but all of this blame game and other utterly nonsense that they engage in is not helping it is only tearing the country and people further apart stick to the real issues and stop with the popularity of who can throw the most dirt. Their religions are their own and it is their choice, everyone have that choice to make and it is no one elses business so let it go and move on, because at the end who will be the ultimate judge of us all.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  8. tru leigh

    "Callista Gingrich joked that she was giving up 'her opinion.'"

    That's what you want in a First Lady?

    February 22, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  9. REALLY ?!?

    To answer the question, I think Ricky will and the Newtster won't. Or not.....LOL

    February 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  10. Don Maheu

    Such wasted ink on such a dirty sacramental! My wife and I skipped it this morning, thank God.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  11. Dan J

    I find it humorous that Callista Gingrich is giving up her opinion for lent. She had one to give up?

    February 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  12. DallasNE

    Ash Wednesday will probably elicit the question "do you thing Obama is a Christian". The standard answer has not been yes or no. It has been "Obama says he is a Christian so I take him at his word". Today someone on MSNBC gave that stock answer but was pressed "no, I want to know what you believe" and his answer to that question was "no". Wait, that means you do not take him at his word so you are calling Obama a liar unless you come back and say you misspoke because you can't have it both ways.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  13. MissButterfly

    Is this why you scheduled the debate for Ash Wednesday? Another excuse to talk about religion and try to make the Republicans look creepy instead of focusing on the many important matters facing us?

    February 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  14. sandy

    What kinda media are you? Worrying about or even asking if they'll have ashes on. We have so many important questions and issue's please don't dumb people down with this stupid question and redric

    February 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Uh...


      February 22, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Nick

      Try Faux News I hear they are bashing the new Muppet movie for instilling Communist beliefs, next Oscar from Sesame St. is a sanitation union spokesman.

      Is it the top story...NO. Your party's top candidate wants to put America back into the 15th century, when heretics are beaten, stumping solely on social issues...yeah...put your money where your mouth is!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  15. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

    After a hard day, Rick Santorum likes to relax in a tub full of nice, warm santorum.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • jack


      February 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  16. bill

    We are all eagerly awaiting the unmitigated shellacking that the unholy CNN will attempt tonight to make their sweetheart Obama look great. Pathetically transparent to those of us who care.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Steve the Atheist

      And you can thank your party for it. These 4 Clowns are making Obama look better and better each week. I guess you'd prefer that CNN stops covering the GOP race altogether huh? That is the only way to stop the Republican shame. I sort of feel for you too.....

      February 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • durundal

      Stop parroting things that are beyond you: lest you look any more foolish

      February 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Mark Knox

      Steve the Atheist- While I'm not an Atheist I do agree with everything you just said. They should just refer to these debates as "A meeting of the Committee to Re-Elect President Obama."

      February 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • bill

      steve, you are welcome to your faith or lack thereof. good luck to you.

      February 22, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • jack

      you are an dumb idiot and YO MOMMA dresses you funny!!!!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  17. bill

    Sorry to say, folks, you've all taken a dark turn somewhere. I'll pray for you.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • situationalawareness

      Try reallocating your resources in other ways.

      February 22, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • jack

      and YO DADDY spleaks in tongues with YO MAID

      February 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  18. DorisV

    Who cares what either Newt or Santorum do? They are both nut jobs as far as I'm concerned. Wouldn't vote for either of them for any position.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  19. Diane

    I have ashes on my forehead – I will go around town today and I don't plan on taking it off (by the way guys, they don't last that long. If Mr. Santorum went in the morning, they'd be gone by afternoon at the latest). I don't wear them to "show off" that I'm a Christian, but I'm not ashamed of it either. I figure if anyone asks me about it, it gives me an opportunity to share what it means. And what is that?
    For more info. on Lent, go to this site: http://www.stpaulskingsville.org/lent.htm

    Ash Wednesday (from the Latin Dies Cinerum, meaning "Day of Ashes") is the first day of Lent. On this day, Christians focus intensely on their utter and complete sinfulness and the necessity of Christ's suffering and death to earn their salvation. Ashes are referred to many times in the Old Testament as a sign of sorrow, mourning, repentance, and mortality (2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1-3; Job 42:6; and Jeremiah 6:26). Many churches use ashes during Ash Wednesday worship as part of a rite called the Imposition of Ashes. According to this custom, ashes (traditionally made by burning palm fronds used on Palm Sunday of the previous year) are mixed with a small amount of olive oil and applied to the forehead of each worshipper. The smudge mark made by the dirty ashes is a powerful reminder that we are going to die because death is the penalty for our depraved natures and sins of thought, word, and deed. The fact that the ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross directs us to Jesus Christ as the only way to forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in heaven.

    Hope that helps clarify the discussion. I think it's personal choice if a person chooses to keep them on, and I don't see any need to make mention of it at the debate.

    February 22, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • bill

      nicely put

      February 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Adam

      So am I supposed to *ALSO* completely and utterly focus on your sinfulness?

      February 22, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • chief

      just another made up pagan tradition of the catholic that has zero historical meaning outside the catholic church

      February 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  20. pelegrim

    Really? Is this a question on everybody's minds? Sheesh...you blow, CNN

    February 22, 2012 at 3:24 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.