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Distribution of Ashes
Q. On Ash Wednesday, I was wondering if a layperson can give themselves the ashes instead of from a priest.
— Tom, Michigan
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
A classic Latin maxim reminds us, “Nemo dat quod non habet” — that is, “no one gives what she (or he) doesn’t possess.” In our liturgical life, this can be expanded to mean that while we may freely share with others the gifts of God that we have received, we may not claim those same gifts nearly so freely for ourselves.
This becomes clear when we read the instruction for distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday. Church rubrics direct the priest to bless the ashes after the homily. Once he has done so, the instructions say, “Then the priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him, and he says to each one. . .”
Ashes on Ash Wednesday are like throat blessings on St. Blaise Day — something we appropriately receive from another, but should not presume to administer to ourselves.
If we give the matter some thought, we realize we confer none of the Church’s sacraments upon ourselves. Even baptism, which can be administered by anyone with the proper intention, is not something we can give to ourselves: if this holds true for the Church’s primary sacrament, how much more so for a sacramental such as ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Q. Can you tell me what the current practice is when building or remodeling churches for the placement of the tabernacle? It is to be place on the altar, or behind the altar in a central spot?
— Sister Mary Thomas, O.P.
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
Both the Code of Canon Law (see Canon 938.2) and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM, see No. 314) emphasize the importance of locating the tabernacle “in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer.”
Few will quarrel with any of these broad recommendations. However, the GIRM also states, “It is more in keeping with the sign that the tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved not be on an altar on which Mass is celebrated” (No. 315), and the bishops’ committee quoted in the Code of Canon Law suggests “a room or chapel specifically designed and separated from the major space … so that no confusion can take place between the celebration of the Eucharist and its reservation.”
Some may fear that these directions are the first steps toward banishing the reserved Eucharist from churches — and, indeed, from Catholic worship — but this seems far too harsh a judgment. The language of all the instructions stresses the importance of keeping the tabernacle present and visible in the church, and making adequate provision for worshippers to have unimpeded access to it and uninterrupted prayer before it. These two considerations, ultimately, must guide any decisions in building or remodeling churches.
Q. Please comment on the practice of wearing a rosary as a necklace. As a deacon, I was asked to give my opinion on this by a young parishioner, and I told him I did not approve of it as the rosary is an instrument of prayer. Another parishioner countered that we wear crosses and crucifixes, so why would a rosary be any different. Does the Church have a position on this?
A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
The Church has no opinion on the matter of wearing a rosary around one’s neck. It seems to me that the practice has to be interpreted in personal contexts. I know a few very devout Catholics who wear rosaries as a demonstration of their faith, and there is surely nothing wrong with this.
Wearing a rosary as a fashion statement is certainly in a different category. It is hardly to be recommended. Making the wearing of a rosary part of pop-culture paraphernalia — without any statement of faith involved — is certainly not acceptable. In a multicultural and multireligious society, it is important that everyone be respectful of the religious symbols of others.
Why Go to a Priest?
Q. My non-Catholic friends press me with the question, “Why do you go to confession to a priest? Why not simply go to God, since he’s the one who must forgive you?” Evidently, I have not answered their question very well. How should I respond to it?
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D
Think first about forgiveness from God. Jesus has given us His sure way of receiving that forgiveness. He gave us the Sacrament of Penance. He expects us to use it. Jesus Christ never gave us any optional commands. Did He say to the apostles, “Go preach the Gospel to all the world, if you feel so inclined”? Did He institute the Sacrament of Baptism with the remark, “Here’s a nice thing you might do”? Did He tell us to eat His body and drink His blood, “if that sort of thing appeals to you”? Of course not! All His commands are absolute.
Now consider the Sacrament of Penance. Read again Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, and John 20:22-23. Jesus bestowed the power of this sacrament on His Church because He intends His people to use it.
Furthermore, what assurance do we have God does forgive us when we are truly contrite? Jesus foresaw that need, and empowered His priests to give that assurance.
But what about forgiveness from the people harmed by our sin? We need that, too. You and I never know how many persons are affected by our sins, nor do we know who all of them are. Imagine standing beside a quiet pond and throwing a rock far out into the water. Think of the concentric circles which go out and out from the point of impact. You finally lose sight of all of them. Sin is like that.
In the Sacrament of Penance, Jesus Christ empowers His priests to offer not only God’s forgiveness. Speaking in the name of the community affected by our sins, the priest also offers us their forgiveness. This is the only way we can be fully freed of the guilt of our sin.
Finally, a mature confessor can offer spiritual guidance. He can help people better understand their actions, their sins. He can also help to make the very important distinction between remorse (which is purely self-centered) and true contrition and repentance, which are life-restoring.
Q. I came from a practicing, totally loyal Catholic family. However, through the years, some of our children (sons, daughters, nieces and nephews) have had failed marriages and remarried outside the Catholic Church. Consequently, now some of their children are marrying in non-Catholic ceremonies. My question is, should we Catholic relatives be attending and participating in all these non-Catholic celebrations? By doing so, aren’t we condoning and contributing to the erosion of Catholicism in our family? Are there moral consequences?
N.W., Melbourne Beach, Fla.
A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
Sadly, yours is a very common question. If your attendance at these non-Catholic weddings facilitates or accelerates defections from the Church, you should not attend. But if your presence allows you to deepen your relationships with these relatives in order to help you bring them back to the Church, then it would be permissible. In fact, the situation is usually quite complex.
The Church offers some clear principles: you can not be the official “witness” of a marriage which you know is invalid, such as would be the case when a divorced person attempts remarriage without an annulment.
In the case of your relatives who are nominally Catholic, you should encourage them to get married in the Church, and you should work with them to facilitate this. You should also pray and work with those who are remarried outside of the Church to come back and get things straightened out. It can be a painful process of growth in humility and honesty for all involved.
I think it would be helpful for you to talk to your young relatives who are getting married outside of the Church and say, for instance: “You might be wondering why the Catholic faith has such a weak claim in your allegiance? It’s likely that you have never really practiced, it’s likely that you have never made a good confession, and it’s likely that you know very little of your faith. It’s time to learn something. You can, if you are willing to listen.”
Is it reasonable to expect teenagers to get confirmed in the Catholic Church or for twentysomethings to get married in the Church if the last time they went to confession was in second grade, if they never memorized the Ten Commandments, if they do not even know the basic prayers, and if they have not been raised in a family that has made the practice of the true Catholic faith their No. 1 priority?
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