Q: What advice can you give about the upcoming celebration of Ash Wednesday at the hospitals? One priest chaplain says that only priests distribute ashes at the Mass held in each Chapel, and only priests take ashes around to staff and patients who could not come to the service.
What about staff who come on during the later shifts who might want to receive ashes? Would they have to call in a priest, or could non-Catholic Chaplains also distribute ashes?
Finally, is it acceptable for non-Catholic staff and patients to receive ashes blessed during the Chapel service?
A: The Book of Blessings 1659 permits “lay ministers” to assist in the distribution of ashes, but reserves the blessing of ashes to a priest or deacon. Those ministers are not further identified.
So I think it depends on the context. If we’re talking about a hospital room with limited access, where there is a danger of contagion for the patient or the Catholic minister, and if a non-Catholic has better access to the room, then I think, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s fine to let the non-Catholic administer ashes that were blessed by a priest or deacon.
But if the context is staff members coming to work on a late shift wanting ashes when no priest is there, I don’t find that argument compelling. Parishes will be offering ashes in churches throughout the diocese, and staff members could go there to receive their ashes throughout the day. It isn’t just a matter of receiving ashes, but participating in the prayer service that surrounds them.
The custom has been that non-Catholics are indeed eligible to receive ashes. The missal refers to those coming for ashes as “those present”—not even “the faithful”. That implies a pretty broad permission.