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Ashes: They aren't just for Catholics (or male bishops)

February 13, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • A man receives a cross of black ashes on his forehead on Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
A man receives a cross of black ashes on his forehead on Ash Wednesday at St.… (John Moore / AFP/Getty Images )

In Pittsburgh, where I was born and lived for most of my life, Ash Wednesday was a powerful reminder of just how Catholic that city was. On the first day of Lent, downtown streets and office buildings teemed with people with dusky foreheads, a kind of religious census by smudge.

But ashes aren't just for Roman Catholics anymore. When I emerged from the Foggy Bottom Metro station Wednesday morning, I encountered a bishop in miter and flowing purple cope affixing ashes to passersby, a reminder to them that from dust they came and to dust they will return. 

I knew it wasn’t a Roman Catholic rite because the bishop was a woman, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde of the Washington Episcopal Diocese. In recent years various Episcopal dioceses have offered a service (in both senses of the world) known as “Ashes to Go.” 

Since the 19th century, some Episcopalians -- so-called Anglo-Catholics -- have practiced rituals once exclusively associated with Roman Catholics. But in recent decades other Protestant denominations have embraced traditions that would have horrified their austere ancestors: not only ashes but candles on the altar and elaborate vestments for the clergy (the “rags of popery” of Reformation polemic).

This trend was the little-discussed flip side of the “Protestantization” of the Catholic Mass in the 1960s that traumatized traditional Catholics like my grandmother -- not only the replacement of Latin by the vernacular but the active participation of the laity. Pope Benedict XVI, who announced his retirement this week, was a hero to Catholics who shared my grandmother’s disgust with liturgical reform. (And not all of them are elderly.) To the distress of some liberal bishops, Benedict authorized priests to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass if a “stable group of faithful” asked for it.

I’m not sure how the soon-to-be-former pope would feel about “Ashes to Go.” I do know that he wouldn’t be pleased by the idea that the bishop dispensing them was a woman.

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