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20150218cm01806 webPope Francis gives ashes during Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome Feb. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

ROME (CNS) -- Lent is a journey of purification and penance, a movement that should bring one tearfully back to the loving arms of the merciful Father, Pope Francis said at an Ash Wednesday Mass that began with a procession on Rome's Aventine Hill.

After walking from the Benedictine monastery of St. Anselm to the Dominican-run Basilica of Santa Sabina Feb. 18, Pope Francis celebrated Mass. He received ashes on the top of his head from Cardinal Jozef Tomko, titular cardinal of the basilica, and distributed ashes to the Benedictines, the Dominicans, his closest aides and a family of five.

When a priest places ashes on one's head or forehead, he recites: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" or "Repent and believe in the Gospel."

Both, Pope Francis said, are "a reminder of the truth of human existence: We are limited creatures, sinners always in need of repentance and conversion. How important it is to listen and accept these reminders."

In his homily before the ashes were distributed, the pope encouraged Catholics to ask God for "the gift of tears in order to make our prayer and our journey of conversion more authentic and without hypocrisy."

The day's first reading, Jl 2:12-18, described the Old Testament priests weeping as they prayed that God would spare their people. "It would do us good to ask, do I cry? Does the pope cry? Do the cardinals? The bishops? Consecrated people? Priests? Do tears come when we pray?"

In the day's Gospel reading (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus warns his disciples three times against showing off the good works they do "like the hypocrites do."

"When we do something good, almost instinctively the desire is born in us to be esteemed and admired for this good action, to get some satisfaction from it," the pope said. But Jesus "calls us to do these things without any ostentation and to trust only in God's reward."

"Do you know something, brothers and sisters, hypocrites do not know how to cry," the pope said. "They have forgotten how to cry. They don't ask for the gift of tears."

The Lenten call to conversion, he said, means returning "to the arms of God, the tender and merciful father, to cry in that embrace, to trust him and entrust oneself to him."

During the 40 days of Lent, he said, Christians should make a greater effort to draw closer to Christ, which is why the church recommends the tools of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But, he said, "conversion is not just a human work. Reconciliation between us and God is possible thanks to the mercy of the Father who, out of love for us, did not hesitate to sacrifice his only-begotten son."

In the reading from Joel, the prophet calls people to "interior conversion," the pope said, a conversion that requires a return to God "with your whole heart."

"Please," the pope said. "Let's stop. Let's pause a while and allow ourselves to be reconciled with God."

Lent, he said, is time "to begin the journey of a conversion that is not superficial and transitory, but a spiritual itinerary" that goes straight to a person's heart, the focal point "of our sentiments, the center in which our choices and attitudes mature."

What is more, he said, the reading makes clear that the call is addressed to the whole community, which is to "proclaim a fast, call an assembly; gather the people, notify the congregation; assemble the elders, gather the children."

Pope Francis prayed that Mary would accompany Christians in their "spiritual battle against sin" and would accompany them in their Lenten journey so they could exult with her at Easter.

alertAt the Spring Assembly of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Joseph Tobin suggested that a delegation ofbishops go to the border to see for themselves what was happening to newly arrived immigrants, families and children. On July 1 and 2, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops conference, and five other bishops conducted a pastoral visit to the diocese of Brownsville, Texas. Stops included Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle with the community, a visit to anHHS/OBR Shelter and Mass for the families there, a visit to the Customs and Border Patrol processing center in McAllen, TX, and a press conference at the end of their visit. Catholic News Service accompanied the bishops on their border trip. 

  1. Backgrounder and analysis of the bishops’ trip to the border: Cardinal DiNardo told CNS, “You cannot look at immigration as an abstraction when you meet” the people behind the issue.
  2. At final press conference, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo said the church was willing to be part of any conversation to find humane solutions because even a policy of detaining families together in facilities caused “concern.”
  3. Bishops serve soup to immigrant families at a center run by Catholic Charities and listen to their stories. Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera said he found hope in hearing the people in the room talk about what’s ahead. They didn’t speak of making money but of finding safety for their children, he said, driven by “the most basic instinct to protect your family.”
  4. At an opening Mass he Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine near McAllen, Texas, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville told Massgoers, “The bishops are visiting here so they can stop and look and talk to people and understand, especially the suffering of many who are amongst us,”

A delegation of U.S. bishops goes on a fact-finding mission at the U.S.-Mexican border to learn more about Central American immigration detention.

Following their visit to an immigrant detention center, U.S. bishops said they are even more determined to call on Congress for comprehensive immigration reform.