02/25/2004, 00.00
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Pope gets Lent underway from St. Peter's Basilica

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Today John Paul II kicked off the season of Lent by celebrating mass at St, Peter's Basilica.

Traditionally the Lenten rite is held at the Santa Sabina Basilica where ashes are distributed on the foreheads of believers as a sign of repentance and conversion. This year, however, due to the pontiff's poor health, the ceremony was carried out at St. Peter's Basilica, replacing the pope's weekly public audience.  

Below we report the Holy Father's sermon given at the Ash Wednesday liturgy (translation by AsiaNews):


 "Your Father, who watches you in secret, will repay you (Matthew 6,4.6.18). Christ's words of are addressed to some of us as we begin our Lenten journey. We begin this journey as we receive ashes today, a solemn and dear Christian traditional gesture of penitence. This act stresses our awareness of man as a sinner before God's majesty and holiness. It also shows our willingness to accept and transform our adherence to the Gospel message into life's concrete choices.   

There are many eloquent verses from the bible which accompany Christ's words. The first example comes from the Book of Genesis: "Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return." (Genesis, 3, 19). These words remind us of our current human condition in terms of its transient and finite existence. The second example is taken from the words of the Gospel: "Repent and believe in the Gospel." (Mark, 1, 15). These are the words of Christ which call us urgently to change our lives. Both verses urge us to begin the season of Lent with a willingness to listen to the Word of God and make a sincere conversion of heart.    

The Gospel points out that the Lord "watches what we do in secret", that is he knows quite well what is in our heart. Externals acts or gestures of penance are worthy only if they express what we feel deep down, if they express our firm desire to shun evil and seek goodness. Herein lays the deep meaning of Christian asceticism.   

 "Asceticism" brings to mind the image of reaching higher levels or plains while necessarily giving up things and making sacrifices. Indeed, we must bring with us the absolute minimum baggage in order not to weigh down our journey, in order to be able to face any difficulty and overcome all obstacles to reach our preplanned objective.

To become real disciples of Christ it is first necessary deny ourselves, to take up our very cross each day and follow Him (cf. Luke, 9,23). This the arduous path we must follow in order to arrive at holiness, to which all baptized people are called today.   

The Church has always indicated some useful means for being able to follow this path. This involves particularly a humble and docile adherence to God's will together with constant prayer. The typical forms of penance found in Christian tradition are abstinence, fasting, mortification and giving up things which in themselves are legitimate goods. So too are concrete gestures found in being kind to our neighbors, which the daily reading of the Gospel reminds us with the word "charity" or almsgiving.     

All this is taken up again with greater intensity during Lent, a time representing of "difficult period" of spiritual preparation and marked by acts of generosity toward our brothers and sisters.  

For this reason in my Message for Lent I wanted to give particular attention to the difficult situations in which many children around the world find themselves, calling to mind Christ's words: "He who accepts only one of these children in my name, accepts me too" (Matthew 18,5). Who, indeed, is in more need of being defended and protected than weak and helpless children?   

The problems affecting children are many and complex. I sincerely hope that our little brothers and sisters, who are often left to fend for themselves, will be given proper care thanks in part to our sense of solidarity. This is one concrete way of showing our Lenten efforts.

My dear brothers and sisters, may we begin Lent with such feelings in our hearts as we make this journey of prayer, repentance and genuine Christian self-denial. May Mary, the Mother of Christ, accompany us on this journey. May her example and intercession obtain for us the joy of moving toward Easter.  

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