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. Mark

    Santorum might go with shoe-black.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  2. BL

    Pope Rick I, the arbiter of all things holy, may not wear ashes on his forehead, but he always seems to have egg on his face.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  3. Truthship

    They should do whatever they usually do on Ash Wednesday, no more , no less. This was a needless focus question.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • TheTrueMoralMajority

      Here, altar boy! Here, altar boy! Let's celebate, I mean celebrate ash wednesday together!

      February 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  4. Republican Class Warfare

    Rick Santorum will take it one step farther and come in ash-face.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  5. Jim P.

    We're electing a civil official, NOT the Pope.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • TheTrueMoralMajority

      Yup. Separation of church and state.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  6. Feast of Beast

    The ashes will look good on the white of the KKK hoods.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  7. vdanker

    Pagan rituals are such fun.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • dalis

      Why are you so judgmental?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • TheTrueMoralMajority

      Dalis – Oh, so wearing ashes on your head at this time of the year is in the bible? Where?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  8. Sean

    Who cares

    February 22, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • TheTrueMoralMajority

      Anyone who hears sanctimonious Santorum's holy diatribes. That's who.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  9. Ms Winston

    Ah, the Pharisees will be on stage tonight, blaming everyone on the left and in the middle for all that they see is "wrong" with America. Years ago, the Episcopal priest at the church I attended had us turn to our neighbor and remove the ashes that he had just imposed so we would not be guilty of "preaching loudly in the market place." Saint Santorum could use a little humility, but I don't think it is in him.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  10. JustIn

    I'd like to get behind Rick Santorum and give him my solid support, but until he's more open about all the stimulus that has gone into his package, we won't know for sure that he's a real Republican and a true evangelical Christian like the rest of them, no matter how oral he gets.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • vdanker

      Too funny!

      February 22, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  11. Bob

    If history is any kind of a predictor it seems more likely that they'll wear egg.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Feast of Beast


      February 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  12. cp125

    Of course they all will, they need to cater to the lunatic fringe, and what better way. I just wish one of these clowns would come out and say what he actually thinks "it's none of you f...g business what I believe in – that's a personal matter". But none of these clowns have guts. I wouldn't want someone so entrenched in his religion that he cannot be the commander in chief of all Americans, no matter what religion or race or any other peculiarity that we're all so proud of. The democrats couldn't have wished for a more perferct filed of contenters – Obama is going to win by a landslide, no matter what he does.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  13. bg in oregon

    Hmmm ….just more symptoms of myths, ancient legends, fairy tales and imaginary friends.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Nelisa

      Song For SharonJoni Mitchell 1976 I went to Staten Island, SharonTo buy myself a maodlninAnd I saw the long white dress of loveOn a store front mannequinBig Boat chugging backWith a belly full of carsAll for something lacySome girl's going to see that dressAnd crave that day like crazy. When we were kids in Maidstone, SharonI went to every wedding in that little townTo see the tears and the kissesAnd the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gownAnd walking home on the railroad tracksOr swinging on the playground swingLove stimulated my illusionsMore than anything.

      July 30, 2012 at 1:16 am |
  14. Rob

    CNN>..Please stop.....Stop the crap....worry about republicans and their destructive Policies...

    February 22, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • chuckly

      that's what Fox is for, where have you been?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Chuckles


      Whooooooa, you're going to need to find some other way to laugh, there can only be one person chucking on this board.... and that's me.

      February 22, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  15. ja

    they shouldn't, a bunch of phonies, don't wear the cross bear the cross

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

      In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the use of sackcloth and ashes as signs of repentance: "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13).

      February 22, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
  16. Republican Class Warfare

    Republicans are going to forsake their current crop of apostates and heretics to nominate someone with a theology they can really sink their teeth into: Satan.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  17. DriveThemFromTheTemple

    No doubt they will all make ashes of themselves.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Feast of Beast


      February 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  18. rufus

    I predict Santorum will make a big ASH of himself tonight. Ron Paul is the only hope for change and the only person who can beat Obama. A vote for any other Republican is just a vote for more of the same.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  19. Aaron

    Santorum was an altar boy? Oh, now it all makes sense.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  20. francis

    CNN >..Please stop....Stop the crap....worry about Obama and his destructive Policies...

    February 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • rick santorumtwit... America's favorite frothy mix

      Would you mind making out a very short list of those destructive policies?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • chuckly

      that's what fox is for, that's all they do. Where have you been?

      February 22, 2012 at 2:12 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.