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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. Alexxthegreat

    I I would say they should not be so demonstrative.....and forego the Ashes....All you are doing is asking for the media to start the religious war anew....Get your ashes, if you are so inclined but leave the display at home.
    I I say that as a practicing Catholic....It comes off very phony for someone like Gingrich especially, to wear the sign of the beginning of lent on his forehead....Three marriages and many infidelities....Acting in a graceful manner would be more appropriate.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  2. Rae Ann Pointer

    It sure is great to come on to CNN and read all the comments. Question though: aren't liberals supposed to be tolerant people, with no prejudices? Maybe these are the bigoted Tea Partiers people told me about.

    And they use the word "hypocrite". How apropos.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  3. dpm1228

    This has got to be the most rediculous story I have ever read! Good story CNN.Maybe you should go back to reporting'the news'of the day....Right!!!

    February 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Rae Ann Pointer

      CNN isn't a news organization.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      But this isnt the news section, its the belief blog section.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  4. sparknut

    It's not what's on the ashes on the exterior that counts. It's the contrite heart that matters. And I doubt any of the GOP candidates have that.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Norm

      Knowing these right wing religious fanatics, this debate will end up being 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 1:45 pm |
    • scott

      you nailed it

      February 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • dinak

      What we DO KNOW is that Obama made a conscious decision to sit in Rev. Wright's church for 20 years. That says a lot about what's inside Obama.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • !

      dinak you are confused. A few posts back you said Obama is a Muslim. Now you are blasting him for sitting in Wright's Christian church which you seem to know a 20 year history of based on a widely circulated video of one sermon. So which is it? Bearing false witness is a sin.

      February 22, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Cedar Rapids

    My bet is not only will Santorum wear ashes but he will make a specific point of referring to them during the debate......with some supposed 'off the cuff' statement like......'I am religious person, as you can plainly see blah blah blah etc etc'

    Newt I am not so sure of. If he has not been spotted wearing them in the past then doing so now would scream pandering to the voters, and would be too obvious.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  6. Reason & Logic

    As a practicing Catholic I would get ashes while I attended parochial school but since I've been an adult I prefer not to wear my religion on my sleeve. I'd rather show it through my everyday actions with others.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Rae Ann Pointer

      If you actually were a practicing Catholic you would know that wearing your ashes is not about wearing your religion on your sleeve. You can be ashamed all you want, but don't come here misrepresenting the faith of your fathers – both of them h o m o.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • sparknut

      Wow, an actual voice of reason and logic on a CNN blog! Thank you!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Mr N.

      You call wearing ashes "wearing religion on your sleeve"? Yeah, right! Practicing Catholic my rear end!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Norm

      Wow Rae Ann is a real angry wing nut isn't she.
      I'm betting man hater too.....
      Poor thing.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • Michael

      Christians attacking each other in public? No wonder the world thinks we're nuts....

      February 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  7. tluv00

    Who cares?

    February 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Big George in Big D

      Plenty of poeple do. If you don't, keep you crap trap shut! There is no need to be hateful.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  8. Dan, TX

    I can't imagine they would leave the ashes on. It wouldn't look presidential.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  9. citizen

    Wonder if CNN will ever run a story and ask if a Muslim woman will wear a Burqha?

    February 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Well when a muslim woman runs for president we will see.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Big George in Big D

      I hope that day NEVER comes! Don't need ANY muslim for POTUS! Can't trust any of them.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  10. Joe D

    So much so that they'll look like they just stepped out of a coal mine!

    February 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  11. Thom

    en masse

    February 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  12. Bob

    If any of them wears ashes on their forhead on a National stage it will just give fuel to Saturday Night Live, that's all.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Reason & Logic

      I'll make sure to watch SNL.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Rae Ann Pointer

      ...because that is where we get our news...

      February 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Big George in Big D

      People that watch stupid crap like SNL are absolute morons! Anyone that thinks its funny when people are made fun of is just downright sick!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  13. Reason & Logic

    Dangerous to wear the ashes because if they sweat over the questions, the ashes will drip.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

      Watch what happens when Ricky starts oozing santorum.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  14. Philip

    Really, cnn? WHO CARES. We're not electing a person based on this cr_ap.

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

      AMEN BROTHER!!!!!!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Actually Philip I think you will find a large number of people are doing exactly that.
      Look at the number of evangelicals voting for Santorum vs the number voting for Romney. Religion sways people.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  15. Norm

    These right wing religious fanatics better wear the dirt on their faces or the hypocrites should just stay home.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • cam

      All you Lib friends..... can't talk on subject matter just try and twist the truth of a failed President!!!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Rae Ann Pointer

      Nancy Pelosi will wear ashes. She is anti abortion. Is she a hypocrite? Joe Biden will wear ashes too. Is he? You libs should stop and think before you post and realize you live in a glass house. LOL

      February 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • cam

      Why don't you try and help your failed President stop spending our money. He only has a couple of months left to squander our tax $.... then the people will send him home to Chicago with his other corrupt buddies!!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • crt

      Rae ann. IF Pelosi wears ashes AND is anti-abortion, why would she be a hypocrit? That's right in line with the catholic church. I seem to remember that she is pro-choice. Good for her.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • crt

      @cam. You fool. Back to basic math. Obama has at least 8 months left until he is either sworn in again or replaced by some GOP dolt who can hopefully can count better than you. Hint: budgets have to do with numbers.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Norm

      Rae Ann is another ignorant Fpxtard inbred that loves to frequent "normal" news sites and show everyone what an angry lesbian she is.
      Just ignore it...

      February 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  16. Blake

    I'll lay down money on this - Lock of the Day: Santorum wears ashes

    February 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  17. James

    Theocrats have no place in the government of the United States. Keep your religion in your churches.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Rae Ann Pointer

      Yeah Obama, keep that black liberation theology out of the WH

      February 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  18. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

    Ricky is giving up his prized 'dead fetus in a jar collection' for lent.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  19. dinak

    CNN – you are idiots. Did you ever ask if Obama was going to wear traditional black liberation theology robes and headdress to his debates? The man wouldn't even wear a U.S.A. pin or flag for a long time – and you thought that was great. When Obama said that he believes marriage should be between one man and one woman, did you ask if he would wear a pin espousing that message? How about writing an article where you wonder which one of the Repub candidates will offer up a far better economic plan than our current President and senate? That will never happen, because u want to shift the focus away from your party's failures and concentrate on religion, instead. U r sickening; how can you cal yourselves "reporters?" U don't report, you create, obfuscate, and take quotes out of context.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Joe Gerken

      wow!!!! take a deep breath.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Norm

      And yet here you are...
      ...at the CNN website.....
      ...taking time from your busy life to leave a rant post.......
      Why not just go back to Fox and spew your Anti-American Teahadist propaganda to your fellow Foxtards?

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

      I got as far as CNN but then it just became 'whine whine, moan moan, accuse!, blah blah blah'
      sorry.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • p

      Ok. Wait is there such a thing as a traditional black liberation theology robes and headdress?
      If you're going to start by just pulling something right out of your rear end...
      Why do you suppose you deserve a serious response of any kind from anyone.
      It's no wonder the GOPTP is going off a cliff in November. You guys got detached from all reality for some reason in 2008, when this particular man was elected POTUS. It's weird.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Walter H

      Obama is more of a Christian than all thess bible-thumpers that question his faith put together.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • XYZ

      I agree 100%. CNN is pro democrates, pro LGBTs, pro Obama and pro evertthing what common Americans hate. CNN always try to glorify democrates, blacks and their non important almost nonexistant achievements. Always try to show blacks are victims and harrases by whites, which is not true. How about all the black criminals hurting other ethnic groups like Indians and asians in retailing?

      February 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Mortalc01l

      I think I LOVE you dinak ! Such desperate stupidity, such rancorous lies ! It's great to see whet the Republican party has become... Overtly racist, uninformed, purposely and willfully igorant and just a flat out nutcase.

      Those Republicans reading dinak's posts; do you REALLY think the Republican party is headed in the right direction? By the way, I voted for Reagan, but I can tell you one thing; todays' Republican party is NOTHING like it was when Reagan was around... today's Republican party is based on lies, slander and outright propaganda... facts are a thing of the past to Republicans.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Just popped in from Stormfront huh XYZ?

      February 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • not a phony patriot

      “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
      Sinclair Lewis
      Obama does not have to wrap himself in phony patriotism, like the fascist right wing movement.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  20. scoobypoo

    This is yet another faux christian "tradition" that was stolen from the pagans.
    So silly. Look it up.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • dinak

      Better than the tradition of having babies out of wedlock and staying on welfare for generations.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Joe Gerken

      Better than the tradition of making racist comments about babies and welfare.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Norm

      Gee dina...go take your meds.
      Or better yet...go to church and pray for some self control.
      Ask yourself ...what would Jesus do.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Rae Ann Pointer

      Norm, ask yourslef...what would Seal Team 6 do? Those are your guys now right?

      February 22, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Norm

      Rae...that only made sense or was witty to you.
      Fail...

      February 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • czerendipity

      There is nothing wrong with adopting rituals from various cultures. Every religion / culture in the world does it and it just means we are all similar. Who cares?

      February 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Evelyn

      DinaK – If you recall, Welfare Reform in the 90s changed the stereotype of "welfare for generations."

      BTW. Many more children are born "out of wedlock" to folks not on welfare than on.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • Mr N.

      Racist comments, Joe? You are the one bringing up race, not dinak. Perhaps you should have looked in the mirror when you made that comment.

      BTW, if you dislike bigotry that much, why aren't you harping on scoobypoo's bigotted comment putting an entire group of people down due to their religous beliefs.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Rae Ann Pointer

      Norm, LOL. I didn't think you would understand. Fail...

      February 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
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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.