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. drinnc

    What the need to wear tonight is a mantle of truth, and a willingness to talk about something more than smudges on the forehead. Its up to the people asking question to have a meaningful debate or just another bunch of irrelevant talk about nothing important to the future of our nation.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  2. gottawonder

    Now I'm wondering about Rick. Was he ever abused by a priest while he was an alter boy? THAT would explain SO MUCH about him. No wonder he is so messed up.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  3. skyking

    dinak.....if President Obama WAS of the Muslim faith just exactly what difference would that make? Scuse me, but you bigotry is running down and off your chin.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  4. dinak

    Will the CNN debate moderators be wearing their Che Guevara and La Raza pins? Will Obama have to be corrected again by George Stehpanopolous that his religion is Christianity and not Muslim, as he had to a few years ago? Who makes that mistake? Saying that your faith is Muslim? How does that just slip out of one's mouth by accident. Obama is a fraud; not because he is a Muslim, but because he won't admit it unless it slips out by accident.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • plucky

      He's an atheist deep down inside. Yea!

      February 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • *

      If you actually had the brains to look up the statement in the interview with Stephanopolous, you would see it is quite clear that Obama NEVER said he is a Muslim. His statement was in reference to McCain's never had made the false claim in any of his campaign ads or appearance as other candidates had done. But, go ahead an keep on mindlessly parroting all of your Fox New propoganda. As to who makes that mistake, look in the mirror. Congratulations, you opened your mouth and removed all doubt.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  5. loathstheright

    Christians just aren't followers of Jesus, they only say they do and then do the opposite of his teachings.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • dinak

      You mean like Obama spewing more carbon than anyone on the planet, although he once stated that global warming is the most dire threat to mankind's existence?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Terry

      I wonder if Santorum was an Altar Boy?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  6. pastmorm

    If they wear ashes in the debate they will be a laughing stock. We're a nation built on the Separation of church and State. The Republicans are trying to turn us into a theocracy and it must be stopped now!

    February 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  7. Terry

    I cannot wait for these guys to get exposed for their, "getting it on the side activities". Ron Paul already admitted that he was unaware that it had been moved.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  8. Brad

    The GOP has become the party of blatant hypocrisy! Local Republicans complained about a local church feeding the homeless because the homeless were filthy. These hypocrites aren't Christians at all!... they are self serving trash that behave more like Nazis than Christians!

    February 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  9. Alison

    Why wouldn't Rick Santorum keep the ashes on until the debate tonight? I can guarantee that even if the actual ashes rub off by then, he'll have a makeup artist put something resembling ashes on his forehead for the debate tonight. And he will point out to viewers that he has them on his forehead. He is THAT guy. Bleh.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • ab

      I agree.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Rbnlegnd101

      He will have his television makeup applied, and then a nice thick layer of ash, from head to toe. Just in case, he will also be wearing palm leaves, and have a spare bag of ashes in each pocket.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  10. scott

    The GOP debaters would do well to heed the advice of Jesus, as set forth in Matthew (6):

    "Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven."


    "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

    February 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  11. Boytjie

    So Gingrich only goes to Mass when he really, really has to?

    February 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Terry

      Gingrich might be the Satan that Santorum discussed. But then again, it could be Romney, or Paul, or Obama, or his next door neighbor, or Reverend Graham, or John King. Only the Shadow knows.........

      February 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  12. Rae Ann Pointer

    Jeremy Lin or Tim Tebow, which Christian do we hate today? Hmmmm......

    February 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Alison

      I was unaware that Jeremy Lin is Christian. That said, people don't dislike Tebow because he's a Christian. People dislike him because he's a Christian and has used his faith for fame. He seeks out the camera so he can pose in front of it. And that's obnoxious.

      That and he's a mediocre QB at best.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • scott

      Why do we have to hate them?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • *facepalm*

      People hate Lin? I guess that's a new one on me. I think the biggest difference between Lin and Tebow is talent

      February 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Republican Class Warfare

      They should both shut up about their imaginary friends and throw the freakin ball.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  13. GFinny

    I am just waiting for Santorum to battle Satan in a showdown match for the primary. Then Obama can CRUSH him 🙂

    February 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  14. rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

    That wasn't ectoplasm they used in the Ghost Busters movies. It was santorum.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • GFinny


      February 22, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  15. Alexxthegreat

    And here is another thought....by the time this afternoon rolls around, they will have been to hair and makeup....Now...for the dolts out there....makeup would mean washing the face and applying some powder or foundation....so...if anyone of my Catholic brethren show up with that smudge on their forehead, you will KNOW it was crafted to appear wholesome.

    My advice would be to show up without it....or fear a whole lot of laughter over it. Me included.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  16. Attila, The Hun

    Better check out gingRICH and Santorum tonight.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  17. ChuckB

    Rick will even wear sack cloth and a hair shirt.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  18. felix_in_Mass

    I'm voting for whichever candidate has the darkest, largest ash mark on their forehead, and/or the largest and shiniest American flag lapel. Extra points for a visible sidearm underneath their blazer and/or sweater vest.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      And instant win if they walk in with a bald eagle sitting on their arm.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  19. RIALgal

    It isn't only Catholics who receive ashes on Ash Wednesday. Many mainline Protestant denominations also have embraced the tradition in recent years.Whether one does or does not makes no difference at all.

    February 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Mr N.

      Exactly, it's just a tradition, not required even by the Catholic church. Yet here in CNN you get all of these religious bigots criticizing a tradition. So much for tolerance.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Peter

      Mr. N: What do you mean by "here in CNN"? Are you talking about this board? I didn't know these were CNN employees posting.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  20. Uncouth Swain

    Will presidential candidates wear ashes at Wednesday debate?

    Um...if they are catholic...perhaps. But are any?

    February 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • ChuckB

      Rick is and Gingrich claims he is.

      February 22, 2012 at 1:54 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.