Going Public for Lent: Catholics Wear Ashes to Work

From sports-show hosts to business consultants, Catholics across the country display the mark of Ash Wednesday as a sign of repentance and silent evangelization.

Tony Reali, host of the ESPN program Around the Horn, is one of many American Catholics who wear their ashes to work.
Tony Reali, host of the ESPN program Around the Horn, is one of many American Catholics who wear their ashes to work. (photo: Deadspin)

WASHINGTON — Tune into ESPN this afternoon at 5pm Eastern, and you’ll catch Around the Horn, a lively and informative sports talk show hosted by Tony Reali. You’ll also see a Catholic symbol on prominent display: a cross of ashes smack-dab on the host’s forehead.

Reali, a cradle Catholic and current parishioner at St. Augustine’s in Washington, D.C., has worn ashes for Ash Wednesday his “whole life,” and he has been doing so for the 13 years he has appeared on TV. The 35-year-old husband and expectant father says his decision to keep the ashes on while on air isn’t anything extraordinary — just the simple product of living the faith.

“I’m a sportscaster and a television host, and I’m Catholic,” Reali told the Register.

The New Jersey native says his faith has been a constant influence throughout his life, from his days growing up in an Italian-Catholic family of nine to his time at the Jesuit-run Fordham University and now in his professional life. Wearing ashes while on national TV is simply staying consistent.

Reali also noted the symbolic power the simple gesture has: “I think it’s important for people to see someone young in a public setting stand for what they believe in. Stand for religion. I’m proud and want other people to feel they can be proud of what they believe in.”

Still, not everyone who watches the show is clear about just what Reali believes in — or what exactly is on his forehead each and every Ash Wednesday.

The sports website Deadspin has documented some of the confusion in recent years, highlighting tweets from people who mistook the sacramental sign for dirt, ink or even a bruise from a fight.

But for every ignorant or insulting comment, Reali can point to many more messages of support. He also credits his co-workers over the years for their openness to his act of faith.

“I’ve been fortunate to have always worked in an environment that has allowed me to be myself, and I appreciate that,” he told the Register.


Wear to Work

Reali isn’t the only Catholic in the public eye preferring to wear his ashes when going to work.

Catholic politicians like Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have been known to proudly display the mark of Ash Wednesday while on the job.

And although he has been criticized for his support of abortion rights and the redefinition of marriage, Vice President Joe Biden wore ashes at a 2010 press conference, prompting confusion and criticism — and later, embarrassment — from media members covering the event.

Of course, millions of Catholics working normal jobs wear their ashes to work, too.

“It’s just never crossed my mind to wipe them off,” said Leslie McClellan, who works at a Washington think tank. “I don’t see it as unprofessional, because it’s a small mark on my forehead that I get once a year, and I’ve never been told it is.”

The 26-year-old said her workplace, like Reali’s, is open to the public display of faith.

“I never feel like I’m the only one in the crowd with the ashes,” McClellan said. “There has always been someone else with the ashes on their forehead where I’ve been.”

Also displaying the sign of Ash Wednesday to work is Mattias Caro, a 34-year-old business consultant who works for an international software developer in Virginia. He says the ashes are primarily about recognizing his own need for repentance at the beginning of Lent, but they are also a natural conversation starter and present an opportunity for a bit of evangelization.

“Friends will ask or make a mention about them during a coffee break,” he said. It gives him an opportunity to “explain the purpose behind the ashes and perhaps, if I’m feeling brave, invite a co-worker to Friday’s fish fry at the parish and Stations of the Cross.”

But some practicing Catholics refrain from wearing their ashes to work — either by choice or by law.

Katie Petrik is a preschool teacher in Las Vegas, teaching with the Head Start program. The 24-year-old says program policy prevents her from wearing her ashes on the job.

“We are legally not allowed to teach or visibly practice religion in Head Start, so, no, I would not wear them to work.”

Also deciding against wearing ashes into the workplace is Kevin Gallagher, a 25-year-old management consultant who works in Manhattan. Gallagher cites an office environment that “runs on conformity” as the primary factor in his decision.

“Nobody wants to be remarkable, except in ways that reflect well on you as a worker,” he said. “Anything else is seen as a liability.”

And Gallagher also believes that it’s a mistake to view the mark of ashes as an “evangelical tool.” Too often, he says, people wear them publicly for the wrong reason.

“It really doesn’t mean ‘I am a sinner’ so much as ‘I am a somewhat pious Catholic,’” he said of the impression displaying ashes can communicate publicly.


Bearing Witness to the Faith

Holy Cross Father Michael Wurtz agrees with Gallagher: Ashes should not be viewed primarily as a tool for evangelization, nor should Catholics wear them publicly for the wrong reasons.

“We do not pray the Mass, for example, so that we can be seen,” said the priest, who is studying for his doctorate in liturgy at the Sant’Anselmo in Rome. “Our Lord warns against those who exalt themselves.”

Rather, Father Wurtz says the ashes should be received as “a sign of penance and recognition of our need for ongoing conversion in Christ.” He said the centuries-old tradition is an appropriate beginning to Lent, a season in which “we are mindful of our baptism, of the ways we may have fallen in the Christian life and of Christ’s voice beckoning us to follow after him more and more.”

Still, Father Wurtz says that if displayed in public for the right reasons, the ashes can bear witness to the faith, fulfilling the duty of the laity to evangelize within their families and places of work in a small way.

“To a secular person who is unfamiliar with the Church and her practices, a dark smudge on the forehead can be perplexing or even considered freakish,” he explained. “This is unfortunate, but it can be a great opportunity to explain this Christian practice.”

Father Wurtz also noted that, while the ashes aren’t a sacrament, they are a sacramental, “a visible sign that signifies our interior disposition of repentance and our commitment to respond to God’s love and grace.” While he says the Church doesn’t mandate Catholics to keep their ashes on all day, Fr. Wurtz says it’s “irrational” to receive the ashes only to wipe them off, a practice he strongly discourages.

“For a variety of reasons, in the United States, we can tend to be sheepish about expressing our faith, whether in words or signs,” Father Wurtz said. “Ash Wednesday reminds us that expression of our faith in Christ is not limited to the confines of a church building and its four walls.”


‘Marked’ as a Catholic

Father Wurtz’s use of the word “sheepish” might apply to some Catholics who choose not to wear ashes in public, but it certainly doesn’t describe all of them.

In fact, Reali, the ESPN host, admits that he “struggles with the publicness” of displaying his ashes on national TV, but for far different reasons other than cowardice. His main worry has been that non-Catholics might criticize his decision as an effort to force his faith on others.

But Reali sought counsel from a trusted friend, Father Bill Dailey, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who assuaged his concerns.

“He told me, ‘It marks you out as a Catholic; but other than that, it marks you out as a person, acknowledging your own sin, vulnerability and mortality. Hard to see how that should give offense, except to one looking to be offended.’ ”

So Reali will continue to wear his Ash Wednesday ashes on air, both this afternoon and in the future — not in an attempt to insult anyone, but as personal expression of his faith.

And the fact that his decision might lead curious viewers to learn more about the Catholic faith is all for the better, he said: “If I’m looking at the complete picture, it’s led to a greater dialogue about Catholicism and faith and religion, which I think is a good thing.”

Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.