Can blessed ashes be left out for "self-service"?

At my parish, the blessed ashes are left on the altar after the Mass. Throughout the rest of the day, parishioners are invited to come in to give each other ashes. There are directions sitting next to the ashes on the altar. You cannot give yourself ashes. Is this okay? My parish has done this for at least thirty years, as I have attended there since I was a child. I’m just not sure if it’s right now that I’ve been reading so much here at Catholic Answers Forums.

It is true that lay ministers can be deputed to assist a priest or deacon in the distribution of blessed ashes:

This rite [the blessing of ashes] may be celebrated by a priest or deacon who may be assisted by lay ministers in the distribution of the ashes. The blessing of the ashes, however, is reserved to a priest or deacon (Book of Blessings 1659).

However, leaving the ashes unattended on the altar for people to come in and give to each other is not provided for by the rubrics and could be open to potential abuses. For example, someone who showed up alone and could find no one to help him might decide to help himself, thinking reception of the ashes similar to reception of holy water from the holy water font at the front of the church. And, inviting people to come up around the altar to give each other ashes diminishes the sense of sacredness laypeople should be encouraged to have for the altar area, even outside of Mass.

As this procedure is not provided for by the rubrics for the distribution of the ashes on Ash Wednesday, it should not be done.

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