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On Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis said that Lent is a time to look inward at our true selves and to share our deepest desires, worries, and weaknesses with the Lord in prayer.

In a world where “everything has to be exposed, shown off, and fed to the gossip mill of the moment,” the Lord is inviting us to “remove the masks we so often wear” and to see ourselves as we truly are in the sight of God, Pope Francis said in his Ash Wednesday homily.

“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.” “Let us acknowledge what we are: dust loved by God. 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,” the pope said on Feb. 14.

Pope Francis presided over Mass in the Basilica of Santa Sabina, a fifth-century church on Rome’s Aventine Hill where St. Thomas Aquinas once resided. The Mass followed a short procession of priests and cardinals that started at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Anselm on the Aventine with sung prayers of the Litany of the Saints. 

The 87-year-old pope, who frequently uses a wheelchair, did not lead the procession of priests and cardinals this year as he has in the past due to his limited mobility. In his homily, Pope Francis encouraged everyone to make more space for prayer in silence in Eucharistic adoration during the 40 days of Lent. 

“Let us return, brothers and sisters. Let us return to God with all our heart,” he said. 

“During these weeks of Lent, let us make space for the prayer of silent adoration, in which we experience the presence of the Lord like Moses, like Elijah, like Mary, like Jesus.” “Let us not be afraid to strip ourselves of worldly trappings and return to the heart, to what is essential,” he said.

Pope Francis reflected on Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Mt 6:4).

He quoted advice from St. Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century Benedictine monk and doctor of the Church who wrote in 1078: “‘Escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him.’” 

“‘Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him. Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, O Lord, I desire.’” The Basilica of Santa Sabina is one of the oldest basilicas in Rome that preserves its original colonnade and layout. The basilica is the first church in the traditional Lenten station church pilgrimage in Rome.

The 40-day pilgrimage to 40 of Rome’s most ancient churches dates back to the early fourth century and originally included daily papal processions in which people prayed the Litany of the Saints on the way to offer Mass at the burial site of the early Christian martyr assigned to that day.

“This evening, in a spirit of prayer and humility, we receive ashes on our heads. This gesture is meant to remind us of the ultimate reality of our lives: that we are dust and our life passes away like a breath (cf. Ps 39:6; 144:4),” Pope Francis said.

“The ashes placed on our heads invite us to rediscover the secret of life. They tell us 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.” 

“When, on the other hand, we have the courage to bow our heads in order to look within, we will discover the presence of God, who has always loved us. At last, those shields will be shattered and we will be able to feel ourselves loved with an eternal love.”

By Courtney Mares

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