Ashes to ashes, either way

Question: On Ash Wednesday, I watched the televised Mass with Pope Benedict XVI from Santa Sabina in Rome and was surprised to see that the pope and assisting priests did not put ashes on the foreheads of the people but on the crown of the head. Can you shed some light on this matter of imposing ashes? Also, why did the pope wear a bluish chasuble on that day rather than the traditional purple?

-- Rev. Robert L. Beligotti, Webster, N.Y.

Answer: The rite for the imposition of ashes in the Sacramentary does not prescribe the manner in which ashes are to be placed on people's heads on Ash Wednesday. It simply states: "The priest then places ashes on those who come forward." While the placing of ashes with the Sign of the Cross on the forehead is now almost universal, the older practice of putting ashes on the crown of the head is retained in Rome.

If one goes back to the early centuries of the Church, one finds that ashes were placed in liberal fashion on the head and shoulders of those undergoing penance, and those in the order of penitents were expected to keep wearing ashes for a significant period of time.

The liberal use of ashes -- and even the placing of ashes on the head Roman-style -- does not fit our modern sense of hygiene and our standards of what is seemly. So, I don't expect the papal rite of imposing ashes on the head to catch on anytime soon.

Incidentally, I am aware of a priest in a certain diocese who in the late 1960s decided to jazz up the rite of ashes on Ash Wednesday. He poured ashes into the half-full holy water bucket and walked down among the congregation, spraying them as he went with a mixture of ashes and holy water. This did not go over well with the congregation, and the lines to the bishop's office were lit up for the following three days!

The main thing is that the imposition of ashes never becomes an empty gesture and that those who receive it interiorize the deep sense of conversion to which they are called.

As to the now-controversial bluish purple that Pope Benedict has worn on the past two Ash Wednesdays, I can only say that there are various shades of purple and that purple items tend to appear blue on television screens.

Becoming Catholic

Question: I was baptized as a child in a non-Catholic church. Yet, I go to the Catholic Church every Sunday, but I never receive Communion. Years ago, I received catechism lessons. I would now like to become Catholic and receive Communion, but I am too embarrassed because I have left it so long. Please advise.

-- Shirley A. Frostby by e-mail

Answer: There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Most Catholic congregations have a number of non-Catholics who attend regularly but do not receive Communion. This often occurs when such people are married to Catholic spouses.

One of the reasons why non-Catholics in situations like yours hesitate to undergo the process by which one becomes Catholic is the fear of having to go through a very long and public process like the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

This rite, however, is primarily for those who were never baptized. The Church has a separate rite for full reception into the Church along with confirmation and first Communion. This is for people who are already validly baptized in another Christian denomination. With some remedial catechesis, this can be done quickly and simply.

If I were you, I would approach your pastor as soon as possible. I am sure he will guide you in the right direction.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.