The Pope receives ashes in solemn Ash Wednesday ceremony in Rome

At the annual Ash Wednesday Mass, Pope Francis invited everyone to live the 40 days of Lent as a time to “pause” from things which keep us from virtue and to return home to the loving and merciful embrace of Jesus Christ.

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics around the world receive ashes in a ritual reminding them of their mortality which is referenced in the Bible: “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

A cardinal rubbed ashes on the Pope’s forehead and then the Pontiff did the same to other members of the congregation at the Ash Wednesday Mass in the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome.

“Pause a little, leave behind the unrest and commotion that fill the soul with bitter feelings which never get us anywhere,” he said in his homily

“Return without fear to those outstretched, eager arms of your Father, who is rich in mercy, who awaits you. Return without fear, for this is the favourable time to come home,” Pope Francis said on the first day of Lent.

“Lent is the time for allowing one’s heart to be touched,” he continued, explaining how “persisting on the path of evil only gives rise to disappointment and sadness. True life is something quite distinct and our heart indeed knows this. God does not tire, nor will he tire, of holding out his hand.”

Marking the start of the Lenten seasons on February 14, Pope Francis prayed the Stations of the Cross at St. Anselm Church in Rome before proceeding the short distance to the Basilica of Santa Sabina for the celebration of Mass, benediction, and the Imposition of Ashes.

The traditional procession is comprised of cardinals, bishops, priests, the Benedictine monks of St. Anselm, the Dominican friars of Santa Sabina, and lay people. As they make their way between the two churches, they sing the Litany of the Saints.

The practice of beginning the Lenten season of prayer and penance this way was started by Pope John XXIII when he came for the opening of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in 1961.