ROME – Pope Francis opened the church’s Lenten season Wednesday, telling believers to use their 40 days of penance to let go of individualistic and self-reliant habits, and to refocus their hearts on God and on service to those in need.

Speaking during his Feb. 22 homily for Ash Wednesday, the pope told faithful to set out “on the path of prayer and use these forty days to restore God’s primacy in our lives and to dialogue with him from the heart, and not only in spare moments.”

“Let us set out on the path of fasting and use these forty days to take stock of ourselves, to free ourselves from the dictatorship of full schedules, crowded agendas and superficial needs, and choose the things that truly matter,” he said.

He urged believers “not neglect the grace of this holy season, but fix our gaze on the cross and set out, responding generously to the powerful promptings of Lent.”

Pope Francis began the liturgical observance of Ash Wednesday leading a prayer service at the church of Sant’Anselmo, after which a procession was made to the nearby basilica of Santa Sabina, where he presided over Ash Wednesday Mass, with the traditional rite of the blessing and imposition of ashes.

Ash Wednesday marks the formal beginning of the Lenten season, traditionally observed as a time of prayer and penance in reparation for one’s sins, and as a moment of conversion.

Francis, cardinals resident in Rome, and members of the Roman Curia typically spend the first week of the season on a spiritual exercises retreat outside of Rome.

However, this year, the pope has asked that they conduct their spiritual exercises “in a personal way,” gathering for prayer every afternoon from Feb. 26 – March 3. During that week, all of the pope’s events, including his March 1 general audience, will be suspended.

In his homily Wednesday, Pope Francis said Lent is a time to return “to what is essential, to divest ourselves of all that weighs us down, to be reconciled with God, and to rekindle the fire of the Holy Spirit hidden beneath the ashes of our frail humanity.”

The imposition of the ashes and call in the day’s first reading to “return to me with all your heart” urges faithful to both return to the truth about themselves, and return to God and to their brothers and sisters, he said.

In terms of returning to oneself, Francis said the ashes are a reminder of “who we are and whence we come,” and they bring each person “back to the essential truth of our lives: the Lord alone is God and we are the work of his hands.”

Without God, “we are dust,” he said, saying the temptation is always present in life for people to believe that they are “self-sufficient, strong and invincible” without God.

Lent, then, is an opportune time “to remind ourselves who is the creator and who is the creature. The time to proclaim that God alone is Lord, to drop the pretense of being self-sufficient and the need to put ourselves at the center of things, to be the top of the class, to think that by our own abilities we can succeed in life and transform the world around us.”

“Now is the favorable time to be converted, to stop looking at ourselves and to start looking into ourselves,” he said, and urged faithful to take stock of the distractions that make them lose sight of God.

Calling Lent, a “time of truth,” the pope said it is also a time “to drop the masks we put on each day to appear perfect in the eyes of the world. It is a time, as Jesus said in the Gospel, to reject lies and hypocrisy: not those of others, but of ourselves.”

Pope Francis said looking to oneself is also a reminder that life is never isolated, but consists of a series of relationships, primarily with God and with others.

The ashes imposed, he said, send the message that “every presumption of self-sufficiency is false and that self-idolatry is destructive, imprisoning us in isolation and loneliness.”

Life is a relationship that was received and can be renewed thanks to the people God places by one’s side, he said, saying Lent, then, is a “season of grace” allowing believers to rebuild their relationship with God and others.

This can be done, he said, by “opening our hearts in the silence of prayer and emerging from the fortress of our self-sufficiency.”

“Lent is the favorable time when we can break the chains of our individualism and rediscover, through encounter and listening, our companions along the journey of each day,” and to recognize and love them as brothers and sisters, he said.

To do this, Francis recommended observing the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting, cautioning that they are not “mere external rites,” but rather “must be actions expressing the renewal of our hearts.”

“Almsgiving is not a hasty gesture performed to ease our conscience; rather, it is a way of touching the sufferings of the poor with our own hands and heart,” he said.

Likewise, he insisted that prayer is not simply a ritual, but is “a truthful and loving dialogue with the father,” whereas fasting “is not a quaint devotion, but a powerful gesture to remind ourselves what truly matters and what is merely ephemeral.”

“All too often, our gestures and rites have no impact on our lives; they remain superficial. Perhaps we perform them only to gain the admiration or esteem of others,” the pope said.

He urged faithful to remember that in both their personal lives and in the life of the church, “outward displays, human judgments and the world’s approval count for nothing; the only thing that truly matters is the truth and love that God himself sees.”

When done genuinely, the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving will be a concrete sign of compassion toward those in need, he said, telling believers to “receive the ashes, and lighten our hearts.”

Urging faithful to set out “on the path of charity,” he said the 40 days of Lent are a “favorable time” for people to remember “that the world is bigger than our narrow personal needs, and to rediscover the joy, not of accumulating material goods, but of caring for those who are poor and afflicted.”

“At the end of the journey, we will encounter with greater joy the Lord of life, who alone can raise us up from our ashes,” he said.

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