ROME — Lent is a time for hope despite the uncertainties, and to care for those who suffer or feel abandoned and fearful because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis said.

“Love is a gift that gives meaning to our lives,” Francis wrote in his Lenten message for 2021. “It enables us to view those in need as members of our own family, as friends, brothers or sisters. A small amount, if given with love, never ends, but becomes a source of life and happiness.”

During the time of “conversion” that is the mystery of Christ’ passion, death and resurrection, Francis wrote, Christians are called to fasting, prayer and almsgiving, as preached by Jesus.

“The path of poverty and self-denial (fasting), concern and loving care for the poor (almsgiving), and childlike dialogue with the Father (prayer) make it possible for us to live lives of sincere faith, living hope and effective charity” enable that conversion and helps renew the faith, the pope said.

The text of the pope’s annual message for Lent, which begins Feb. 17 for Latin-rite Catholics, was released by the Vatican Feb. 12. Francis will say Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, but there will be a reduced number of faithful participating.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments asked priests to take special anti-COVID-19 precautions this year when distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, including sprinkling ashes on the top of people’s heads rather than using them to make a cross on the forehead.

The congregation’s note on the “distribution of ashes in time of pandemic” was published on the congregation’s website Jan. 12 and directs priests to say “the prayer for blessing the ashes” and then sprinkle “the ashes with holy water, without saying anything.”

Throughout the world, several dioceses are still facing lockdowns, with heavy restrictions on indoor gatherings. Some bishops have decided to “extend” Ash Wednesday, allowing for priests to distribute ashes beyond Wednesday.

In his message, Francis said that the season of Lent means “accepting and living the truth revealed in Christ,” firstly by opening one’s heart to his words, “which the Church passes on from generation to generation.”

The truth the Church speaks, he said, is not an abstract concept reserved to a few intelligent chosen people, but “a message that all of us can receive and understand thanks to the wisdom of a heart open to the grandeur of God, who loves us even before we are aware of it.”

“Christ himself is this truth,” he said. “By taking on our humanity, even to its very limits, he has made himself the way – demanding, yet open to all – that leads to the fullness of life.”

Fasting involves being freed from all that weighs us down, Francis said, such as “consumerism or an excess of information, whether true or false.” When experienced as a form of self-denial, he noted, fasting helps those who undertake it rediscover God’s gift and to recognize that, created in his image and likeness, we find our fulfilment in him.

“In embracing the experience of poverty, those who fast make themselves poor with the poor and accumulate the treasure of a love both received and shared,” he said. “In this way, fasting helps us to love God and our neighbor.”

Francis also said that “in these times of trouble, when everything seems fragile and uncertain,” to speak about hope might seem challenging. Yet, he argued, Lent is a season of hope, for “we turn back to God who patiently continues to care for his creation which we have often mistreated.”

Quoting from his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, published last October, Francis called on Christians to be increasingly concerned with “speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement, and not words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn” during this season of Lent. To give others hope, sometimes it is enough to show interest or give a smile, he said.

Lastly, the pontiff noted that love, when it entails following the footsteps of Christ in being concerned and compassionate with all, is the highest expression of hope.

“Love rejoices in seeing others grow,” he said. “Hence it suffers when others are anguished, lonely, sick, homeless, despised or in need. Love is a leap of the heart; it brings us out of ourselves and creates bonds of sharing and communion.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma