ROME – Pope Francis opened the Lenten season with a procession and Mass on Ash Wednesday, telling Catholics to carve out a silent space for God amid the buzz of the digital era in which little remains private.

In his homily, the pope focused on the emphasis the day’s scripture readings places on praying, fasting and giving alms “in secret,” saying Jesus’s invitation to the disciples to “go to your room” to do these things instead of seeking public recognition for them is at the heart of the Lenten season.

Going to one’s room, in this sense, he said, “means journeying from without to within, so that our whole life, including our relationship with God, is not reduced to mere outward show, a frame without a picture, a draping of the soul, but is born from within and reflects the movements of our heart.”

“Without realizing it, we find ourselves no longer having an ‘inner chamber’ in which we can stop and care for ourselves, immersed as we are in a world in which everything, including our emotions and deepest feelings, has to become ‘social’,” he said.

In the social media era, “Even the most tragic and painful experiences risk not having a quiet place where they can be kept. Everything has to be exposed, shown off, fed to the gossip-mill of the moment,” he said.

However, Francis said God’s invitation for Lent is to “Enter into the secret, return to the center of yourself.”

“Precisely there, where so many fears, feelings of guilt and sin are lurking, precisely there the Lord has descended in order to heal and cleanse you,” he said.

Pope Francis spoke during the Ash Wednesday Mass officially opening the church’s Lenten season, which this year coincided with Valentine’s Day. Prior to celebrating Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome, the pope led a moment of prayer at the church of Saint Anselm and a procession to the basilica.

Speaking to the clergy and faithful present, the pope said Lent is a time of both purification and “self-spoliation” which helps people to remove “all the cosmetics that we use in order to appear presentable, better than how we really are.”

“To return to the heart means to go back to our true selves and to present them just as they are, naked and defenseless, in the sight of God. It means looking within ourselves and acknowledging our real identity, removing the masks we so often wear, slowing the frantic pace of our lives and embracing the truth of who we are,” he said.

Francis said the gesture of placing ashes on the head is a reminder to humanity not only “that we are dust and our life passes away like a breath,” but that God does not allow this dust to blow away and vanish.

Rather, God “gathers and shapes the dust that we are, lest it be swept away by the winds of life or sink into the abyss of death,” he said.

The ashes are also an invitation to rediscover the “secret of life,” the pope said, saying the askes are a reminder that “as long as we continue to shield our hearts, to hide ourselves behind a mask, to appear invincible, we will be empty and arid within.”

Yet when someone has the courage to look inside of themselves, they will discover God and his unique love, and “At last those shields will be shattered and we will be able to feel ourselves loved with an eternal love,” he said.

Each person, Pope Francis said, is loved by God, “we are ashes on which God has breathed his breath of life, earth which he has shaped with his own hands, dust from which we will rise for a life without end prepared for us from all eternity.”

“If, in the ashes that we are, the fire of the love of God burns, then we will discover that we have indeed been shaped by that love and called to love others in turn,” he said, stressing the importance of showing compassion and mercy to those in need.

The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not merely external actions, but are “paths that lead to the heart, to the core of the Christian life,” and which allow God’s love to be spread in various situations of daily life, “so that in them hope, trust and joy may be reborn.”

Quoting Saint Anselm, Francis urged Christians to “escape from your everyday business” and to “hide for a moment from your restless thoughts” during Lent, taking a break from their careers and daily tasks and concerns.

“Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him,” and speak openly, he said.

The invitation to “go to your room,” he said, is necessary for a society in which people often live at a superficial level, concerned with being noticed and admired, while losing touch with their inner selves.

“Let us enter into our inner chamber: there the Lord dwells, there our frailty is accepted and we are loved unconditionally,” he said, and urged Catholics to spend time in silent adoration of God.

God in Lent sends a message of forgiveness, tenderness and care, the pope said, telling believers, “Do not judge yourself. Do not condemn yourself. Do not reject yourself,” but to let God’s love touch “the deepest, most hidden corners of your heart and reveal to you your own beauty.”

Pope Francis closed his homily telling faithful, “Let us not be afraid to strip ourselves of worldly trappings and return to the heart, to what is essential,” and to “acknowledge what we are: dust loved by God. And thanks to him, we will be reborn from the ashes of sin to new life in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen