This wake-up call, he said, includes a message from the Lord: “Return to me.” “Return to me, says the Lord. To me. The Lord is the goal of our journey in this world. The direction must lead to him.”
He advised Catholics to fix their gaze upon the Crucified Christ, because “from the cross, Jesus teaches us the great courage involved in renunciation.”
“We will never move forward if we are heavily weighed down,” he continued. “The poverty of the wood, the silence of the Lord, his loving self-emptying show us the necessity of a simpler life, free from anxiety about things.”
To mark 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.
The traditional procession is composed of cardinals, bishops, priests, the Benedictine monks of St. Anselm, the Dominican friars of Santa Sabina, and lay people. As the Catholics make their way between the two churches, they sing the Litany of the Saints.
The practice of the pope beginning the Lenten season of prayer and penance in this manner was started by St. John XXIII when he established the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at St. Anselm's in 1961.
In his homily, Pope Francis reflected on the three areas the Lord invites Catholics to focus on during Lent – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. “What are they for?” he asked. “Prayer reunites us to God; charity, to our neighbor; fasting, to ourselves.”
The season of Lent is an invitation to focus first on God, he continued, then on charity toward others, and “finally, Lent invites us to look inside our heart, with fasting, which frees us from attachment to things and from the worldliness that numbs the heart.”
Comparing the heart to a magnet, which always “needs to attach itself to something,” he said if it always “attaches” to things of the world, “sooner or later it becomes a slave to them.”
By comparison, if people turn their hearts to the things which abide, which do not pass away, that is where they will find true freedom, he said.
The ashes, he explained, are a sign of this detachment – “a sign that causes us to consider what occupies our mind.”
“The small mark of ash, which we will receive, is a subtle yet real reminder that of the many things occupying our thoughts, that we chase after and worry about every day, nothing will remain,” he stated.
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“Earthly realities fade away like dust in the wind,” he said, reminding Catholics that no material possessions or wealth go with them past the grave.
“Lent is the time to free ourselves from the illusion of chasing after dust,” he urged. “Lent is for rediscovering that we are created for the inextinguishable flame, not for ashes that immediately disappear; for God, not for the world; for the eternity of heaven, not for earthly deceit; for the freedom of the children of God, not for slavery to things.”
“We should ask ourselves today: Where do I stand? Do I live for fire or for ash?”