How Do We Explain Ash Wednesday to Non-Catholics?

Question: On Ash Wednesday this year, I went to a noon service and then came back to work. One of my co-workers then told me I “had dirt on my forehead,” referring to the ashes. This person obviously was not Catholic and I was so shocked that someone would be so blunt that I didn’t know what to say. I struggled to address the comment without explaining my whole faith tradition. How would you recommend responding to a comment like this?


Religious traditions that feel like second nature to those of us who practice them sometimes seem foreign to others. Your co-worker, rather than being blunt or insensitive, was probably just being truthful. He or she sought to spare you embarrassment, just as one might quietly point out food in a friend’s teeth after lunch. It sounds like your coworker gave you an excellent opportunity to share your faith. You can respond simply and accurately, satisfying the person’s curiosity and leaving the door open for further inquiry, without explaining your whole faith tradition. Next time, try something like, “Today is the beginning of a special season for Christians, when we focus on changing our hearts and turning towards God. We use the ashes to remind us that life is fleeting so we should turn away from sin and turn towards God.” This is what evangelization looks like in everyday life. Your colleague may already have noticed something about you – that you are a person who lives with love and joy. Now he or she will have an idea about where that comes from, and will know that you are a person to turn to if he or she wants to know more.

For more on Ash Wednesday, Check out our video:

Neela Kale

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.