For most Catholics in the United States, the question of how ashes are to be imposed on this day is one that might not ever come to mind. The image of a dark cross on the forehead is so common in even popular culture, that anything else seems almost unthinkable. How many Ash Wednesday penitents have been disappointed when their cross wasn’t clear enough?
Yet, the rubrics of the rite itself are very sparse in their directions. The Roman Missal reads simply, “the Priest places ashes on the head of all those present who come to him” without any further directions.
In some parts of the world, it is more customary to sprinkle ashes over the crown of the head. This is what is typical in Italy, and the picture below shows Pope Francis receiving his ashes in this fashion last year.