Taking Ashes to the Housebound

Bringing Ashes to the Housebound

Inten days time we celebrate Ash Wednesday and the start of the season of Lent. In many parishes around the country, clergy and lay ministers will distribute blessed ashes to the housebound, and those in hospitals or nursing homes.

Being marked with ashes as a sign of mortality and repentance is important in Catholic liturgical spirituality, and so this ministry is greatly appreciated by the faithful who are separated from the community because of illness or infirmity.

The rite to be used when taking ashes to homes or institutions is the “Order for the Blessing and Distribution of Ashes – Ash Wednesday” in the Book of Blessings. The elements of this rite follow a familiar pattern: Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, Blessing and/or Distribution of Ashes, Intercessions and Lord’s Prayer, Concluding Rite.

The Sacramentary states that the giving of ashes is not to be done apart from a service of the word. Since the reforms of the second Vatican Council, all Catholic ritual includes reading from scripture. For this reason the introduction to the rite for distribution of ashes in the Book of Blessings says:
“According to circumstances, the rite may be abbreviated by the minister. Nevertheless, at least one scripture reading should be included in the ser­vice.” (BB #1657)

If the ashes to be brought to the sick have already been blessed, the blessing is omitted and the distribution takes place immediately after the scripture reading, or “brief explanation of the biblical text”, if that is included in the rite. In any case, the blessing of the ashes is reserved to a priest or deacon.

Practical steps that parishes can take to help ensure that the Distribution of Ashes is celebrated in a manner which respects the intent of the rite and the needs of the housebound include:

Preparing an Order of Service from the Book of Blessings (having the latter in electronic form on the “LabOra Worship” resource will make this easy to do) and putting it in a folder for all clergy and lay ministers involved.
Ensuring that all ministers understand the importance of carrying out their role with reverence and care both for the rite and for those they serve. The minister represents Christ and manifests faith and charity on behalf of the whole community. For the sick, being able to receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday is a sign of the support and concern of their fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Arranging for ministers to be given the blessed ashes for distribution at the end of parish Masses on Ash Wednesday. This reminds the assembly that the community includes members unable to be physically present.
Using containers for carrying the ashes that respect the purpose for which they will be used, both from a practical (e.g. sealable) and aesthetic (e.g. not recycled food containers) point of view.
Helping connect Ash Wednesday with the whole of Lent for those confined in homes or institutions by giving them a copy of the parish Lenten schedule and inviting them to pray for those to be initiated at the Easter Vigil. Bringing a parish bulletin to the sick or housebound parishioner is a good way of keeping them in touch with the community’s activities.


Elizabeth Harrington