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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: For pastoral practical reasons, can ashes be blessed and distributed, in an retirement/seniors’ home or nursing facility, for example, before Ash Wednesday (on the preceding Monday or Tuesday)? -- R.P., Toronto
A: Since this suggestion would, for all practical purposes, anticipate the beginning of Lent, I do not think that this solution is possible.
As the 1988 circular letter on Lent and Easter "Paschales Solemnitatis," issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship states:
"21. On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, the faithful receive the ashes, thus entering into the time established for the purification of their souls. This sign of penance, a traditionally biblical one, has been preserved among the Church's customs until the present day. It signifies the human condition of the sinner, who seeks to express his guilt before the Lord in an exterior manner, and by so doing express his interior conversion, led on by the confident hope that the Lord will be merciful. This same sign marks the beginning of the way of conversion, which is developed through the celebration of the sacraments of penance during the days before Easter."
The liturgy does sometimes allow for changes in traditional dates when these have no effect on the overall calendar. For example, the bishop may anticipate the celebration of the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass to an earlier date, preferably within Holy Week, in order to facilitate the participation of the maximum number of priests. This practice is quite common in extensive dioceses where the journey to the cathedral might take several hours.
Moreover, the proposed solution is unnecessary to resolve such pastoral difficulties, since the liturgy already offers a satisfactory alternative. The Shorter Book of Blessings has a rite for the blessing and distribution of ashes outside of Mass.
Nos. 1059-1062 of this book has the following indications:
"1059. The season of Lent begins with the ancient practice of marking the baptized with ashes as a public and communal sign of penance. The blessing and distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday normally takes place during the celebration of Mass. However, when circumstances require, the blessing and distribution of ashes may take place apart from Mass, during a celebration of the word of God.
"1060. This order may also be used when ashes are brought to the sick. According to circumstances, the rite may be abbreviated by the minister. Nevertheless, at least one Scripture reading should be included in the service.
"1061. If already blessed ashes are brought to the sick, the blessing is omitted and the distribution takes place immediately after the homily. The homily should conclude by inviting the sick person to prepare himself or herself for the reception of the ashes.
"1062. This rite may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon."
Therefore there are several options to attend the spiritual needs of people in nursing homes and similar situations:
-- A priest or deacon can visit the place during the day in order to bless and distribute the ashes. If necessary, the rite can be abbreviated.
-- The priest or deacon brings already blessed ashes to the place and performs the rite of distribution.
-- A designated lay minister brings previously blessed ashes to the place and directs a slightly varied version of the rite of distribution of ashes. The variations for a lay minister are already foreseen in the ritual of Blessings.
In conclusion, therefore, it is not permitted to anticipate the blessing and distribution of ashes to Monday or to Shrove Tuesday and such an anticipation is pastorally unnecessary.
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