ROME — At Ash Wednesday Mass, Pope Francis spoke about the bad habits, negativity, and sin present in our lives which cause us to be choked off from the life-giving breath of God – supernatural grace.

“The breath of God’s life saves us from this asphyxia that dampens our faith, cools our charity and strangles every hope,” he said March 1. “To experience Lent is to yearn for this breath of life that our Father unceasingly offers us amid the mire of our history.”

Marking the start of the Lenten season, Pope Francis prayed the Stations of the Cross at St. Anselm Church in Rome before processing the short way to the Basilica of Santa Sabina for the celebration of Mass, benediction, and the imposition of ashes.

Francis said that as we set out from the church, the mark of the ashes reminds us of our origin: “we were taken from the earth, we are made of dust.”

“True,” he said, “yet we are dust in the loving hands of God, who has breathed his spirit of life upon each one of us, and still wants to do so.”

“He wants to keep giving us that breath of life that saves us from every other type of breath: the stifling asphyxia brought on by our selfishness, the stifling asphyxia generated by petty ambition and silent indifference – an asphyxia that smothers the spirit, narrows our horizons and slows the beating of our hearts.”

We get so accustomed to this strangulation, the Pope said, that it becomes normal for us, and we fail to notice that we are breathing air “in which hope has dissipated,” and only “the air of glumness and resignation, the stifling air of panic and hostility,” remain.

Lent is a time of saying ‘no’ to all of this, he said: “No to the spiritual asphyxia” of indifference, of trivializing life, of excluding people, and of looking for God while ignoring the “wounds of Christ present in the wounds” of others.

“Lent means saying no to the toxic pollution of empty and meaningless words, of harsh and hasty criticism, of simplistic analyses that fail to grasp the complexity of problems, especially the problems of those who suffer the most,” he said.

It is also a time to examine our manner of praying, giving alms, and fasting, he said, to be sure that we aren’t doing it for the wrong reason, like to feel good about ourselves.

Instead, Francis said, “Lent is a time for remembering. It is the time to reflect and ask ourselves what we would be if God had closed his doors to us. What would we be without his mercy that never tires of forgiving us and always gives us the chance to begin anew?”

Moreover, it is “the time to start breathing again. It is the time to open our hearts to the breath of the One capable of turning our dust into humanity,” he said.

It isn’t a time to “rend our garments before the evil all around us,” he continued. Instead, we are called to “make room” in our lives “for all the good we are able to do.”

“Lent is a time of compassion,” the Pope concluded, “when, with the Psalmist, we can say: ‘Restore to us the joy of your salvation, sustain in us a willing spirit,’ so that by our lives we may declare your praise, and our dust – by the power of your breath of life – may become a ‘dust of love.’”