The Holy Father began the Ash Wednesday celebrations at the Church of Saint Anselm all'Aventino. There he took part in a moment of prayer, followed by a penitential procession to the Basilica of Saint Sabina. Several cardinals, archbishops, bishops, Benedictine monks of Saint Anselm, Dominican Fathers of Saint Sabina and some faithful took part.
At the end of the procession, Pope Francis presided over Mass in the Basilica of Saint Sabina, with the rite of the blessing and imposition of ashes.
In his homily, the Holy Father reminded the faithful how God calls his people to penance and conversion. Because only the Lord can save us, he stressed, we must beg him with prayers, fasting, and confessing our sin.
Francis said the prophet Joel insisted on interior conversion: 'Return to me with all your heart.'
To return to the Lord “with all your heart,” Francis said, means to "undertake the journey of a conversion that is not superficial and transitory, but a spiritual itinerary that concerns the most intimate place of our person."
The heart, he said, is the seat of our feelings, from where we develop our attitudes and make our choices. To “return to me with all your heart,” he added, does not involve individuals only, but is extended to the whole community.
At the beginning of this Lent, the Pope said, "it will do us good to ask for the gift of tears, so as to render our prayer and our journey of conversion ever more genuine and free of hypocrisy."
Reflecting on today's Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus rereads the three works of mercy foreseen in the Mosaic Law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Francis said that we are to do this, but not to be hypocritical when we do.
"When we do something good, almost instinctively a desire is born in us to be esteemed and admired for that good action, to get some satisfaction. Jesus invites us to do these good works without any ostentation, and to trust only in the Father’s reward 'who sees in secret.'”
"The Lord never tires of having mercy on us and he wants to offers us once again his forgiveness, inviting us to turn to Him with a new heart, purified of evil, to take part in his joy," he said.
Given this, he asked: How are we to receive this invitation?" This effort of conversion, the Pope said, is not only a human work, but happens through God's grace. “In him we can become just, in Him we can change, if we receive God’s grace and do not let the favorable moment pass in vain."
With this awareness, Francis said we should begin our Lenten itinerary confident and joyful. He prayed that Mary Immaculate support our spiritual battle against sin.
We are dust
The Holy Father then spoke on the gesture of the imposition of ashes on the head and when the celebrant pronounces: 'Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return'' or repeats Jesus’ exhortation: 'Repent and believe in the Gospel.'
Both formulas, the Pope went on to say, constitute a call to the truth of human existence: "We are limited creatures, sinners always in need of penance and conversion."
“How important it is to listen and to accept such a call in this our time!" Pope Francis concluded. "Therefore, the invitation to conversion is a spur to return, as the son did in the parable, to the arms of God, tender and merciful Father, to trust in Him and to entrust oneself to Him.”