VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis rubbed ashes on the bowed heads of prelates, nuns and ordinary Catholics Wednesday, and had them smudged on his own head, too, to usher in the Lenten season of prayer and sacrifice he said must be done out of authentic love, not to satisfy one's conscience.
The ritual, during Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, symbolizes mortality. Catholics in churches worldwide were also marking Ash Wednesday with similar ceremonies. Lent is the annual period of penitence, prayers and sacrifice as faithful prepare for Easter.
"True love, indeed, is not an exterior act, it's not to give something in a paternalistic way to satisfy the conscience, but it is accepting those who need our time, our friendship, our help," Francis said in his homily.
The pope described Lent as a good time "to train ourselves to be more sensitive and merciful" to others. He added that Lent presents the occasion to practice simplicity and sharing.
The pope has proclaimed this year as a Holy Year of Mercy. He says people are hurt by the "evil they commit and suffer" and need to experience forgiveness.
Since becoming pontiff in 2013, Francis has stressed that the church needs to be less severe and judgmental.
Attending the Mass were some 700 "Missionaries of Mercy," of the more than 1,000 priests chosen from candidates worldwide to promote the pope's vision of mercy, especially to those who have strayed from the church and want to return to the flock. After the ceremony, they were to head to assignments to preach and hear confessions in Africa, Asia, North America, the Middle East and elsewhere during the Holy Year, which runs through Nov. 20.
This select corps of confessors received special permission from the pope to absolve extremely grave sins normally dealt with by diocesan bishops or Vatican officials. Among those sins are profaning a consecrated host or violating confessional secrecy.
Abortion is another such grave sin that in the eyes of the church must be absolved only by bishops or specially designated priests. But last year, Francis announced that, during the Holy Year, he is allowing all rank-and-file priests to grant such absolution to women who want to repent.
In Catholic teaching, abortion triggers automatic excommunication when the person is aware of the penalty and commits the sin anyway.
Francis said he realized that some women felt they had no choice but to make the "agonizing" choice to have an abortion.