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

soundoff (557 Responses)
  1. Pete

    This is really a stretch for an article. As a catholic, I know that wearing ashes throughout the day is not required. You get them on your forehead, and then if it wears off, you take a shower, rub it off, its not a big deal at all.

    Is Santorum does still have it, it means he's making an obvious statement. But he's not bound to keep the ashes on by chruch doctrine.

    February 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  2. Reality

    Only for the newbies:

    It makes no difference who wears ashes. 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 22, 2012 at 5:18 pm |

      I wouldn't call the majority of voters "immoral". You're putting a very large group, into a very small basket.
      The majority of voters have had an abortion.
      What we need is to make it more difficult to get an abortion. Make certain guidelines required before having an abortion.
      For an example... "I want an abortion, because I dont want to raise a child" thats completely unacceptable!
      However... "My life is in danger, and the baby isn't going to survive either"... Then that may be a better more acceptable reason.

      February 22, 2012 at 5:26 pm |

      Sorry, I meant "the majority of voters "haven't" had an abortion"

      February 22, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  3. Blanca DeBree

    After lecturing me on the use of my uterus for the past couple of weeks, if I don't see both Gingrich and Santorum with ash on their foreheads, they will be exposed as hypocrites, and I will have to take a serious look at Mr. Magic Underpants.

    February 22, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  4. Rick W

    so what is wrong with people practicing their faith??

    February 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm |

      Nothing until it infringes on the rights of those who believe differently!

      February 22, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  5. Lewis Keseberg

    What I want to know is are the candidates going to be partaking of the jesus-blood prior to stepping in front of the camera. That would make for MUCH better TV.

    February 22, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  6. Robin

    The article states: Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lenten season, when Christians take time to prepare for Easter through a time of fasting and prayer.
    What it should actually say is, "Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lenten season, when A FEW Christians take time to prepare for Easter (actually Ostara) through a time of fasting and prayer AND THE COLLECTION OF CHOCOLATE BUNNIES AND EGGS AND NEW CLOTHES FOR SPRING.
    The wearing of ashes on one's forehead is really a Pagan custom to give the wearer the protection of Odin, the All Father. Of course, the early church appropriated it, like the rest of their customs for different "Christian" holidays: holly, candles, gift-giving for Christmas, rabbits, lambs, eggs, the hiding of eggs, chickens, for Easter, etc. In fact, Easter is a variation of Ostara, the goddess of Spring.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Quite correct Robin. The vast majority of people think that these traditions were established when Christianity first started to gain momentum. The origins and reasons behind the traditions tell a very different story.

      February 22, 2012 at 5:31 pm |

    I personally dont believe that there is a man like figure sitting up in the sky watching your every move. He isn’t there making sure your sports team wins. He isn’t there talking to the pope, the rabbi’s, or any other religious leader. And he certainly isn’t there talking to any of you. sorry to say we're just not that important. He does have laws though, that must be abided by. For instance there are things you must do to live, and procreate (even though his laws have allowed us to do that outside of our own bodies), we must stay clear of certain elements while enojoying other elements. His laws are made of laws you may have heard before. Like laws of gravity, laws of physics, and velocity, and logic. For god in completely undeniable!
    Things you can’t even imagine are alive, reproduce, enjoy some elements while rejecting others. Our very own planet is alive (its not a rock) our solar system is alive the universe is alive, stars die and reproduce every minute. and its a great and beautiful display of gods power. gods plan is for the universe and beyond. we’re just a minuscule particle in a minuscule time period, no more important than any other living thing. however we have evolved intelligence that other species have yet to achieve. Our destinations will be laid out in time with science and true understanding of these (gods) laws. Be patient we”LL get there in time! until then we need to love, respect, protect, and feed one another so that we survive long enough to achieve the goal of god. One more thing. This gods laws, are proven everytime scientist have a new break through, or discovery another one of gods fascinating laws are revealed. Its important that we understand it, question it, and finally correct what we can, and accept what we can't. His laws are unforgivable. He's not an angry god. Just one that has given us life, in a place where his laws can't by any means be broken you have no choice in them, for they are already set. You can't break them if you wanted to. For god has made sure of this! Love god, your fellow man, the planet, the universe. And constantly remind yourself how small you are in gods creation. For this is your true god! For your bible was hand written by man to impart laws for civility. And these laws are 2000 years old now. Its time to believe in what we know, and let go of what isn't real!

    February 22, 2012 at 4:41 pm |


      UncleRucku3 hr 47 min ago

      0 diggs


      Religion easily has the greatest bullsh!t story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time...But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He's all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can't handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good bullsh!t story. Holy Sh!t! George Carlin

      February 22, 2012 at 4:57 pm |

      Right! There is no heaven! There is no hell!
      Prayer doesn't work!
      miracles dont exist!
      No man had ever been dead for 3 days then came back to life!

      Get off the imaginary BS, and understand with logic. Thats where god exists!

      February 22, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  8. john

    I meant Electing

    February 22, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  9. john

    Are we lecting a President or a Pope.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  10. Joe

    Their aides are cruching poll numbers right now. Ashes or no ashes...whichever gets more votes is what they'll do.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  11. Dr. Paul D

    A dirty forehead means a dirty mind. At least that's what I always thought.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  12. todd in DC

    A bunch of ashholes if you ask me.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  13. g nelson

    Santorum will have a black smudge on his forhead if he has to reapply the mark with mixture of lamp-black and drain motor-oil so the world can recognize his devotion to the Catholic Church.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:31 pm |

      Santorum is dangerous!

      February 22, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  14. Joey

    So what if they have ashes on their foreheads for the debate? Many Catholics do on Ash Wednesday.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  15. Barabas

    Calista is joking about Lent? Crucify her!

    February 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  16. Kitty Cat

    Well, if you remove the ashes before the day is over, it is a MORTAL sin – that is what we were taught 65 years ago in Catholic School. I don't know if that has changed or not. Scared the hell out of me!

    February 22, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • jimtanker

      Who really cares. It's a subversion of an anchient pagan ritual anyway. Just like all of the Xtian holidays and rituals, just taken from pagan rituals in order to steal converts.

      February 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  17. Gumboz1953

    Is that what that is? Ashes?

    I thought it was dirt from hitting the pavement after spending Mardi Gras night in the Quarter.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  18. Ichiban

    Ahes to ashes, dust to dust...

    February 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  19. Phil in KC

    They'll be so busy sweating, it will all be wiped off by the time the cameras roll. And that's if the make-up lady doesn't remove it first.
    The bigger question is, why do I care?

    February 22, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Interested48

      Couldn't agree more.

      February 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  20. dustball44

    Probably one of the dumbest things I've read on CNN.

    February 22, 2012 at 4:04 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.