Among professional Vatican watchers, few are read more carefully than Sandro Magister. It is coming on a year since the election of Benedict XVI and much impatience has been expressed about the delay in a major shakeup in curial leadership. Particular attention is focused on Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State. According to Magister, he is now on his way out, after having made a major mistake in trying to replace Cardinal Camillo Ruini as head of the Italian bishops conference. Ruini, who is also the pope’s vicar for Rome, is thought to be among Benedict’s favorites.

It is also thought significant that Benedict has created Joseph Zen Zekuin, archbishop of Hong Kong, a cardinal. That is considered another move against Sodano, who was viewed as “soft” on accomodating the Beijing regime, while Zen is notably firm in insisting on human rights and the rights of the Church. In the world of the professional vaticanisti , such signals are watched and minutely interpreted with the exactitude that Kremlinologists used to apply to the lineup of Soviet apparatchiks reviewing the May Day parade.

In the larger picture, it is no secret that, when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict was of the view that in recent history the Secretariat of State had become too dominant in the Curia. The premier dicastery—as curial offices are called—ought to be the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which Ratzinger headed before becoming pope. In this view, the pope is the effective head of the CDF, with the prefect—now Cardinal-designate William Levada—being in charge of day-by-day operations. If Magister is right, and he usually is, a reconfiguration is underway in which the chief curial voice will be doctrinal and theological rather than political and diplomatic. If Sodano is on his way out, nobody at this point is claiming to know who Benedict will choose to replace him. But it may be that the long-awaited shakeup is now underway.


In my little commentary on Ash Wednesday last week, I noted that the ashes are imposed with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Several readers complain that that is not what was said in their parishes. The cross was traced on the forehead with the words, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”

And indeed that form is provided in the current rubrics. In fact, it is given before the traditional form, from which one might infer that it is preferred, and it is no doubt preferred by many priests. Why should that be the case? One answer given is that the traditional form is excessively dour and depressing.

I expect that one reason for the astonishing popularity of the imposition of ashes is that so many people want to be reminded of their mortality on Ash Wednesday. They powerfully resist efforts to turn the Ash Wednesday ritual into yet another “celebration.” It is a day of solemn remembrance beginning the Lenten season of mortification and self-denial on the way to Easter. As I wrote in my book Death on a Friday Afternoon , people intuitively know that we should not “rush to Easter.”

A friend who is himself a liturgist says that his guild is dead set on removing from the liturgy all elements of solemnity and mystery. You perhaps know the line about liturgists: Question : What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer : You can negotiate with a terrorist. (The line worked better before September 11, 2001.)

In any event, my friend suggests that the new rules are deliberately designed to discourage the use of the traditional formula on Ash Wednesday. It is now phrased this way: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” Explain all you want that “man” in English includes both men and women, which is perfectly true, but it will still seem awkward to say to a girl or woman coming forward for ashes, “Remember, man . . . ”

In English liturgical usage, the traditional formula used to be, “Remember, O man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That “O man” indicates that you are addressing the person as a member of the human race, of mankind, or, if you prefer, humankind. It has a collective reference. You are not calling everyone who comes forward a man.

My liturgist friend says his colleagues are very cunning; they know exactly what they are doing. By omitting the “O” they are making the use of the traditional formula an embarrassment that most priests would prefer to avoid. You can see that my friend has a somewhat conspiratorial mindset. But then, he has spent his whole life dealing with liturgists.


While I’m at it, several readers objected to my observation that “in recent decades” Lutherans, Episcopalians, and even Baptists have taken to imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday. “My whole life,” a reader writes, “we Lutherans have given out ashes.” I assume she is a somewhat younger reader.

Episcopalians of an Anglo-Catholic disposition have indeed imposed ashes for a long time. Thirty years ago when I was a “high church” Lutheran pastor, we imposed ashes in my Brooklyn parish, and it was viewed as one of the eccentricities of those odd Lutherans who called themselves evangelical catholics. Certainly, the spread of the Ash Wednesday rite beyond Episcopal and Lutheran circles is relatively recent. And—in the event that I did not make it clear in my original comment—most welcome.


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