Access to Ashes for All

February 26, 2017

With Ash Wednesday just around the corner, most of us are thinking how to make this Lent more meaningful than the last. What shall we offer our Lord for these 40 days? We might even be thinking of which Mass we are going to attend. But, I bet the one the last things on our minds is how that ash is going to feel on our forehead when it is imposed. For families of children with disabilities, this is probably what is paramount on their minds for their children with disabilities. Picture, if you can for a moment, a child with sensory issues who is hypersensitive to touch and whose parents want nothing more than for him to participate fully in the sacraments and in the seasons of the Church including Ash Wednesday. But, they are also fully aware that the child will not allow anyone to touch his/her forehead let alone with a grainy substance like ashes. Is there another way for him/her to fully participate in Ash Wednesday according to their disability?

The Third Edition of the Roman Missal notes the following as the ritual act for the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday: “Then the Priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him, and says to each one: Repent, and believe in the Gospel. Or: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Although the custom of the imposition of ashes on the forehead in the form of a cross is widespread in the United States, it is not the only possibility envisioned by the Missal. The custom found in some other nations, including Italy, seem to validly interpret the rubrics to allow for the sprinkling of ashes on the crown of the head. Both options are valid and legitimate and do not stand in the way of any universal norm, liturgical or otherwise.

All that is required is for a parent (or teacher) to speak to the celebrant of the Mass beforehand and ask if the child can receive their ashes sprinkled on their head rather than imposed on their forehead as a cross. Our Church insists “all are welcome” in God’s house yet for some families of children with disabilities, they sometimes feel more like guests than children of our King. Taking small steps like these as teachers or parishioners to assist these families with their children with disabilities goes a long way to living the message of St. John Paull II when he stated, “Open wide the doors to Christ.”