Wear ashes all day?

Q. At Mass on Ash Wednesday, we heard the injunction from Matthew's Gospel, "Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them." But I have found that wearing ashes is a recognizable reminder of the season for those whom I meet during the business day, and it can sometimes serve as a tool for evangelization.

(Recently, I explained to an associate at lunch the significance of ashes and the rules of the Lenten fast, and I noticed that he wound up eating less -- although maybe he was simply being polite!) So my question is this: Should I wash off my ashes early in the day to honor the biblical directive or wear them throughout the day with the hope of prompting conversation about them? (Philadelphia)

A. I would say, "Wear the ashes all day." The passage you quote from (Mt 6:1) is taken from Christ's Sermon on the Mount, and earlier in that same sermon, Jesus had said, "Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father" (5:16).

It all has to do with motivation; what Jesus rules out is wearing ashes "to win the praise of others" (6:2). But that's not why you are wearing them; your goal, instead, is to have people look at your forehead and wonder what it means.

The ashes serve first as a sign of repentance; in the early Church, converts who were coming into the church at Easter were sprinkled with ashes during Lent as a sign of their need for forgiveness. We are not perfect people; all of us stand in need of God's mercy. Second, the ashes indicate our mortality -- the fact that our bodies will one day return to the dust of the earth.

When worn for the right reasons, ashes witness publicly to our belief. Matthew's Gospel discourages not the outward show of faith but the interior pride that could undermine it. As you have found, the ashes can sometimes lead to a discussion about their meaning, and that is surely a worthy outcome.

Q. I have been to churches where young children and those not receiving the Eucharist still process forward at Communion time and receive a blessing. My own parish has forbidden extraordinary ministers from giving such a blessing. Is that a church rule or simply the preference of the pastor? (Southeast Indiana)

A. At the present time, there would seem to be no absolute and universal "church rule" regarding the practice. Clearly, there are some situations where laypeople can offer blessings: Parents often do so when children are going to bed or families are gathered around the table.

But the Catechism of the Catholic Church does note that "the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry" (No. 1669).

In 2008, the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship was asked specifically about an extraordinary minister's giving a blessing in the Communion line. The reply came in a private letter from the congregation's undersecretary -- an advisory opinion not having the force of law -- saying that the practice was then "under attentively study" but for the moment was to be discouraged.

To my knowledge, nothing further has come from the Vatican on this. Meanwhile, dioceses seem to take varying approaches. The Archdiocese of Washington says on its website, "Extraordinary ministers are deputed for the sole purpose of distributing Holy Communion. They are not to administer blessings or lay hands upon people who approach them but do not wish to receive Communion."

The Diocese of St. Petersburg in Florida, on the other hand, says in its guidelines that when a person comes to them in the Communion line with arms crossed, an extraordinary minister "may place a hand on the individual's shoulder and say, 'May God bless you.' They do not make the sign of the cross over the individual in the manner of a priest or deacon."

- Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service