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. ipmutt

    will anyone from mainstream media come to work with ashes? I don't think so.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  2. Doug Pederson AKA SpectateSwamp

    Sure hope somebody is doing video and posting it to the net. Who is responsible for the questions. We need to know. You can hijack meetings by being in control of the agenda. We need questions that the people want answered not the Chamber of commerce.
    We want video of everything...

    February 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  3. Joe

    For once they can wear their religion on their faces instead of on their sleeves. I expect both Catholics to try to outdo the other and show up in hair shirts and in their bare feet covered with ashes. If w're lucky, they will both give up slinging BS for lent.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  4. Rudolph

    The media continues to initiate and dwell upon off topic issues. This is intentional and so transparent.
    CNN brings up religion and then says the candidate wants to interfere with your faith.
    The strategy is to paint Santorum as a radical when his record shows no evidence of that.

    With the critical issues facing us and the crossroads we are at CNN would do better to ask candidates to continue explaining the appropriate role they see for government in our lives.
    The fact is those dependent upon leveraging a corrupt and massive Federal socialist government are scared as hell of seeing it dwindle.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Indigo

      Agreed, but I haven't heard much from Santorum that relates to the real issues. And you can't say Santorum doesn't paint himself as a "radical" all on his own.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "The strategy is to paint Santorum as a radical when his record shows no evidence of that."

      And you are basing that on what because he sure as hell likes to portray himself as one.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  5. Red

    The problem at the end of the day is not whether they wear their ashes...it's that so many people care about it...

    February 22, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  6. Indigo

    I want Santorum to stop highjacking my religion! He sounds like a crazed evangelical and gives Catholics a bad name!

    February 22, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  7. Bob223

    Ash Wednesday does mark the beginning of the Lenten season And I for one am happy to see an artilce on CNN that has a positive overtone towards Christianity. But the intend of the article seem more to address whether the candidates will display they beliefs with ashes on their forehead. If they don't would some then believe that what they have said about religion is not really their beliefs; just what they thought the public wanted to hear? As for Obama - I believe his record indicates his statement, while a good statement, is what he wanted the public to hear and is not what he believes.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      "As for Obama – I believe his record indicates his statement, while a good statement, is what he wanted the public to hear and is not what he believes." I believe that you are lying when you say that, and that your statement is just intended to fool the public into thinking you DON'T agree with the president. I also believe you are from Kenya.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  8. clarke

    Rick will make a point of having ashes. It's a point to prove on his part.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  9. Umm Well

    You are supposed to wipe the ashes off, not wear them as a badge of self-importance. Any Catholic would remember this from CCD.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Wrong

      Wrong, it's the one day of the year that we're supposed to show the world that we are Catholic and proud of it and are going into a time of reflection and searching for a better relationship with God.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  10. Jacob

    well they are all trying to prove they are the BEST Christian, so they'll have to!

    February 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  11. Jim in San Mateo

    How goofy. I gave up Catholicism for Lent. Been a much happier and healthier person every since.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Fox me? Fox you!

      Perfect! I gave up all worship of imaginary fairies for lent 30 years ago. We are on the same righeous path.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  12. Burbank

    I hope both these jerks show up with ashes at the debate. And they worry about Romney's Mormon ties?

    February 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Leroy Jenkins

      The Mormons have special ties too? I thought they only had special undergarments! : )

      February 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  13. crabby appleton

    Kimster a large majority of help to those in need comes from ORGANIZED religion. Salvation Army-is a prime example.Churches have formed non-profit corporations to provide emergency shelters and provide meals and clothing to the people you worry so much about.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • feckless

      Do a little research, All those services "provided" by religions, catholic and otherwise, are paid for by secular tax dollars. No more public money for private bigotry!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  14. clarke

    It is a.ash Wednesday, so what if they have ashes, will it be a sin if they don't. This is silly.
    There is more than one religion in this country and not all get ashes . Come on CNN.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  15. Burbank

    How does Gingrich get away with marrying this woman and still be in the Church? Is she a widow?

    February 22, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      He hasa very good reason.
      According to L. H. Carter, Gingrich's campaign treasurer, Gingrich said of his first wife: "She's not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of the President. And besides, she has cancer." He served her with divorce paper while she lay in a hospital, recovering from surgery.
      He divorced his second wife becuase "There's no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."
      So, he loves America SO much that he HAD to cheat on his second wife and marry his mistress.
      Following that logic, anyone in a monogamous marriage is a commie terrorist.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      "How does Gingrich get away with marrying this woman and still be in the Church? " The Church can forgive him for his sins, just as it cannot forgive Clinton for his. In short, Newt paid them to like him. Works every time.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  17. lee s

    Could someone who has never read any religious text be considered "a good person" by those of particular faith if they uphold the morals of the COMMON sense so called "laws" or "Commandments" , or "pillars of faith" in religious text? I mean if the ten commandments included "kill and maim" or instructed you to steal and cheat then do you think anyone would follow that faith?

    February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  18. Johnson

    As a Catholic, be it one who doesn't like Rome or Bishops I went to Church today. The Gospel was about not wearing one's religion on one's sleeve. Ironically we all received the ashes afterwards and walk around all afternoon with our faith on our foreheads. Something doesn't make sense here.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Kate

      I know. I heard the same gospel. And it is kind of odd that we all walk out with the ashes after hearing that. But I keep mine on as more of a reminder to myself than anyone else. I hope I"m not doing it to "show off." And I don't care if anyone else rubs their ashes off. I don't particularly try to keep them on. They usually rub out by mid-afternoon.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  19. Semper fi

    Why would they? They are not Catholic.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • f

      Uhhhh, yes they are

      February 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • lee s

      Its not exclusively Catholic.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
  20. Rae Ann Pointer

    I recall Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi also wore ashes. But thats OK, they're on our side. How transparent.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      "I recall Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi also wore ashes" To the debate? It hasn't happened yet. What are you talking about?

      February 22, 2012 at 1:21 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.