ROME -- Pope Francis condemned power struggles in daily life, stressed that appearance is not as important as God and urged Catholics not to be obsessed by possessions on Ash Wednesday.
The pope said that Lent, when the faithful are called to fast, pray and give alms to the needy, is meant to wake up Christians and help them see that God can give them the strength to change their lives and their surroundings.
Francis, wearing purple vestments, led the traditional annual procession Wednesday marking the start of the penitential season of Lent from the monastery of St. Anselm to the Basilica of Saint Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome.
To a chanted litany of saints, the pope walked behind Benedictines from St. Anselm, Dominicans from St. Sabina and cardinals who work in the Vatican.
In the Basilica of St. Sabina, the pope received ashes that were smudged on his head from Slovakian Cardinal Jozef Tomko, the cardinal-priest of the basilica. He then did the same to the cardinals accompanying him.
Francis urged Christians to avoid being seduced by a society that measures the value of humans by how much they own or produce, but to instead turn their focus to God. He said that the true value in life is found not in success, but in what we have inside.
"What matters is not appearances, and the value of life does not depend on the approval of others or of success, but on what we have inside," said the pope.
In his homily, the pope said that conversion starts with recognizing that "we are creatures, that we are not God." Too many people today, he added, think they have power and "play at being God the creator."
The pope said "Lent comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy," and he explained the need for prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
He said that with more regular and intense prayer during Lent Christians are called to think of the needs of others, "interceding before God for the many situations of poverty and suffering" in the world.
Pope Francis said: "Fasting makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him." Fasting, he added, is a sign of becoming aware of and taking responsibility for injustice and oppression.
Almsgiving, Francis said, is a practice that should be common among all Christians, but especially during Lent.
Francis will leave the Vatican Monday with his top aides for a weeklong Lenten spiritual retreat at a religious institute south of Rome. In the latest example of his efforts to instill simplicity in the Vatican, this will be the first time in living memory that the papal week of preaching and prayer will be held outside the Vatican City state.
During this first year, Francis has reached incredible levels of popularity. The sheer number of people attending his services and events had increased dramatically since his election March 13. Also Wednesday, a new magazine was launched titled Me Pope including his activities and sayings. Each week there will also be a free-pull-out poster with a recent memorable quote by Francis.
But the pope has also expressed his displeasure at the hype that is increasingly surrounding his person and has described it offensive.
In an interview with leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera Wednesday, Francis said he does not appreciate the myth-making that has seen him depicted as a sort of Superman. He said the pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else - in short, a normal person.