ROME—Beginning the 40-day season of Lent, Pope Francis on Wednesday said this is a time to remember the lives “reduced to ashes” through war and indifference.

He also said that this is not a time for “useless sermons” but to recognize that, although nothing but dust, we are “loved by God.”

Francis celebrated Ash Wednesday Mass in the Dominican-run Basilica of Santa Sabina, located on Rome’s Aventine Hill. As is tradition, he began with a brief prayer in the Benedictine Monastery of St. Anselm before leading those gathered in a short procession towards the basilica.

“The dust sprinkled on our heads brings us back to earth; it reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return,” Francis said. “We are weak, frail and mortal. Centuries and millennia pass, and we come and go; before the immensity of galaxies and space, we are nothing. We are dust in the universe. Yet we are dust loved by God.”

Humanity, the pope said, is God’s “hope, his treasure and his glory.”

“Lent is not a time for useless sermons, but for recognizing that our lowly ashes are loved by God. Itis a time of grace, a time for letting God gaze upon us with love and in this way change our lives,” Francis continued. “ We were put in this world to go from ashes to life. So let us not turn our hopes and God’s dream for us into powder and ashes. Let us not grow resigned.”

The ashes received at the beginning of Lent, Francis said, should affect our thoughts, serving as a reminder that as God’s children, “we cannot spend our lives chasing after dust.”

Particles of dust, he said, are the “fleeting realities of this world,” such as living only to earn money, to have a good time, to be prestigious or get a promotion at work.

“We live for so much more, for we are meant to make God’s dream a reality and to love,” he said. “Ashes are sprinkled on our heads so that the fire of love can be kindled in our hearts. We are citizens of heaven, and our love for God and neighbor is our passport to heaven.”

Earthly possessions, Francis noted, will prove useless, much like dust that scatters. Yet the love shared within the family, at work, in the Church and the world, will endure.

The ashes, he said, are a reminder not only of the life-infusing power of God’s love, but also of the opposite passage, “from life to dust.”

“All around us, we see the dust of death,” he said. “Lives reduced to ashes. Rubble, destruction, war. The lives of unwelcomed innocents, the lives of the excluded poor, the lives of the abandoned elderly. We continue to destroy ourselves, to return to ashes and dust.”

“And how much dust there is in our relationships!” Francis continued. “Look at our homes and families: Our quarrels, our inability to resolve conflicts, our unwillingness to apologize, to forgive, to start over, while at the same time insisting on our own freedom and our rights!”

The pope also said that “hypocrisy” is the filth that needs to be removed from the heart, as the Ash Wednesday Gospel says.

God, Francis continued, tells those who follow him not to carry out works of mercy, not to pray or fast, if it is done with pretense, duplicity or hypocrisy.

Cleaning the dust from our hearts, he said, is something that Christians cannot do on their own, as holiness is only achieved with God’s help. For this, he suggested using the season of Lent – “a time of healing” – for contemplating in front of Christ crucified and praying: “Jesus, you love me, transform me.”

“And once we have received his love, once we have wept at the thought of that love, we can make the second passage, by determining never to fall again from life into dust,” he said.

Earlier in the day, during the weekly Wednesday audience, Pope Francis told the thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square that Lent is a season to remove all distractions from one’s life to better hear God and those in need.

“It is the right time to turn off the television and open the Bible. It is the time to disconnect from cellphones and connect ourselves to the Gospel,” the pope said.

“It’s a time to give up useless words, idle chatter, rumors, gossip,” and speak intimately with the Lord, Francis said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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