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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. Midwesterner from Iowa

    What a stupid question to pose!
    What difference would it make, one way or the other?
    Why would anyone care??????????

    February 22, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Hannah

      The same reason they care about things like "Is Jennifer Anniston pregnant – or not???"
      Because people will click on any silly story. You're kinda proof, no?

      February 22, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Norm

      Why would anyone care?
      Maybe you should be asking these GOP candidates when they base their whole campaign around it.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • GFinny

      Because there is NO substance surrounding any of these GOP candidates so the media has to come up with ridiculous stories like this instead of how Santorum is anti-science and will bring our nation back into the 4th century.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  2. Iron Celt

    Catholics are not required to get ashes. If they choose to do so, they are certainly not required to wear them all day; it's perfectly acceptable to brush them off upon leaving church. In fact, Scripture says not to parade around with a "fasting face," so it's actually better to brush them off upon leaving so as to avoid the appearance of self-righteousness in front of the world. The Catholic candidates ought to bear that in mind.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • Norm

      That makes sense since they are also allowed to live whatever disgusting life they chose as long as they go to confession on a regular bases for a good soul washing.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • ajk68

      @norm: That is not all true and is merely bigotry. Nobody in the Catholic Church claims to be perfect, but many Catholics strive earnestly to be good.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  3. Kimster

    Ashes? Really? If you want to demonstrate how pious or religious you think you are, how about feeding the hungry?, housing the homeless?, volunteering at a shelter? That's the hypocracy of organized religion, that you can avoid having to actually care for your fellow human beings by embracing symbolisim. Get so-called religion out of politics and stick to issues that are connected to the real world.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Hannah

      i agree with you wholeheartedly about getting religion out of politics. But I do think the air might be getting a little thin up there on that high horse of yours. Many churches do wonderful things for the poor and hungry – mine included. So zip it.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • dln170

      I am a Christian and our church is actively involved in helping people in our community. This month alone, we helped people who needed money for heating oil or just to pay the bills, we donate to the local Rescue Mission and we send care packages to military men and women who are serving our country. We live our faith out because that's what Jesus commands us to do.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • john

      I guess Kimster is just feeling guilty about his/her own lack of charity and compassion – Sucks to be you, but don't blame your lack of action on those who actually do good thing with their time and money. Your first act of charity should be to sell your computer and get out there and help people. That would be nobel of you...

      February 22, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • crabby appleton

      DO you offer your time/talent by providing shelter to the homeless as well as feed and clothe them? bet not...And if you were in need of these things...would you accept these gifts from an organized religion? bet so

      February 22, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • SPA Knight

      I think Catholics, Christians and several other religious based oranizations do everything on your list and do it cost effectively unlike the government. I suggest we turn over all the work to them, then we can practice what we preach as a nation!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • ajk68

      @Kimster: More uninformed bigotry. Catholics are involved in feeding, clothing and housing the poor. Ever hear of Catholic Charities? or the St. Vincent de Paul society? or the Franciscans? or the Daughter of Charity? or the Sisters of Charity? or the Missionaries of Charity? In addition, just about every parish has at least one program to assist the needy. Most have multiple programs. Catholics also visit people in hospitals and prisons. Catholics run hospitals, which provide free services to the poor. They run homes for senior citizens. The list could go on and on.

      Religion is not just about helping the poor, but you can't claim Catholics don't help the needy.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • NJ

      You are right about getting religion out of politics. It is not fair to say that no religious organizations help the hungry and homeless, because it is just not the case. There are individuals however, that seem to think going to church every Sunday makes up for being azzholes the rest of the week.

      February 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Joseph

      You said it Kimster!

      And you'll get a lot of folks replying they do this and they do that. Yea, right. They help the folks in their OWN CHURCH but screw the rest of the world.

      I've seen it first hand. My sister became a "born again" and will do anything for the folks in her church, but hated her own parents (now deceased) because they were Catholic. She would run with chicken soup to any of her church friends and sit with them, but when her own Mother lay dying she would not even be bothered to come sit with her.

      Praise Jesus and F#@k anyone who does not believe as they do....

      February 24, 2012 at 1:38 am |
  4. Bart

    Can we just keep the Religious connection Out of politics please..

    Separation of Church and State!

    February 22, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • ?

      President Obama attends church, as have most Presidents of different parties throughout history. JFK attended Catholic mass, and received ashes on his forehead during Ash Wednesday services. We have never demanded that our elected officials stop practicing their faith as a condition of their office. Why would that not extend to candidates as well?

      February 22, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • !

      ?- no one cares if, when or where any of these candidates go to church. It is when they start putting their religious beliefs into public policy that affects everyone in this country that they are overstepping.

      February 22, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  5. Steph

    The church across the street from the venue where the debate will take place had to cancel their Ash Wednesday service because the republican party is using their parking lot for debate parking. How anti-Christian is that?

    February 22, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • manyote

      Are you referring to the church or the candidates? Or both?
      IMHO, the church should've told them to take a hike as Ash Wednesday service should've been their priority.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
  6. Sanctimonious

    If it will bring home a few more votes, slap it on, baby!!

    February 22, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • Maybelline

      They are going to have to have the make-up person draw a new smudge on top of their face powder... unless they have a priest hovering backstage to do it...

      February 22, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Norm

      Knowing these right wing religious fanatics, this debate will be a contest to see who's holier by who wears the most ashes.
      I foresee Santorum showing up in complete black face.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • max

      Norm....you're too funny. Amen my brother!

      February 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  7. adam

    Based on the debates and the way they defend Israel more than defending the U.S borders, they might wear Jewish Yamaka

    February 22, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  8. Rsprings

    The real question is why should the media or anyone else care.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • point45

      Agreed. What a lame assed question. anything to make degrade them or religion. yea right, there's no agenda by the liberal media...

      February 22, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • manyote

      Noo, it's about "put up or STFU!"

      February 22, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      I dont' care either, but this is no different than the "lapel flag pin" issue in 2008. This is no different than the hair cut comments or the "expensive clothes, shoes, watches" etc. comments. The thing here is if you want to take this symbolism out of politics then take it all out. Either that or put up with it without complaint.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  9. westward

    Anybody really believe that either one of these guys are men of faith? Religiously affiliated, maybe, but true followers of a caring -based faith, absolutely not.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  10. jdoe

    Knowing Gingrich, his ash mark would likely be 4 inches long and diamond-studded.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Steph

      No that's Callista's ashes...do they sell diamond encrusted ashes at Tiffany's?

      February 22, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  11. jdoe

    I suppose it's better than "Hawaiian Shirt Wednesday". That would make it hard to be discreet.

    February 22, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  12. TheRealTruth

    So when do the candidates get to be who they are, they have a right to espouse their beliefs just like Obama gets to lie about his. What is the difference?

    February 22, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      "What is the difference?" Obama's black.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • ab

      How is he lying about his beliefs? Real facts please, not some boloney that some extreme right wing hate group made up.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • NJ

      He is lying? How?
      I'll bet you consider yourself a good christain as you sit there and freely violate the 9th commandment

      February 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • NJE

      He is lying? How? Care to supply some proof?
      I'll bet you consider yourself a good christain as you sit there and freely violate the 9th commandment

      February 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  13. Reality

    Only for the newbies:

    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 22, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  14. Vince

    If Santorum doesn't then he's a hypocrit. I'm sure it will go over really well with independents who don't put much weight on religious affiliation 🙂
    Who's Ron Paul?

    February 22, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  15. Jamie from Riverside

    whatever. they're both a couple of Ash-Holes.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • grannywheelz

      You made my day.....LOVE it

      February 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  16. Thom

    I wonder if the talking snake will appear on stage at the debate tonight or just morph into human form and spread a little something around.

    February 22, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  17. chief

    i think its great.... it marks the ones kids should run from

    February 22, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  18. CoJo

    Remember, Santorum got fired from Pennsylvania as their senator and Gingrich got fired as the speaker of the house. And you wonder why?

    February 22, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  19. s

    Gingrich has a big enough ash, or I am sorry you meant on his forhead

    February 22, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  20. 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 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 11:37 am |
    • REPUBLICAN ARE GREAT

      You are an IDIOT, must be a Obama voter. Being a Democrat can cause brain damage.

      February 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • REPUBLICANS FOR VOLDEMORT

      Republican are great and so are our grammer. All us republican must bow when the Dark Mark indicate.

      February 22, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • MT

      Who cares if prayer is effective? It helps people get through their day. If religion is the opiate of the masses, then what is the harm of people getting a little high when they are having a tough time?

      February 22, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • dionysusBeer

      @MT- I don't care about people being religious (I myself am religious, though not in the Christian tradition), it's when they use their religion to beat people over the head with like Santorum and the religious right that I have a problem.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Rsprings

      Somebody some where will pray for you..

      February 22, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Religion is the opiate of the masses, but on some people it acts more like PCP.

      February 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • republicans for democrats

      talking about somone elses prayers make us weally weally smarter

      February 22, 2012 at 12:41 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.