Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday: Free yourself ‘from the dictatorship of full schedules’

February 24, 2023 - 10:47 AM
A cardinal sprinkles ashes on Pope Francis’s head during the Ash Wednesday Mass at the Santa Sabina Basilica in Rome, Italy on Feb. 22, 2023. (Vatican Media via CBCP News)

VATICAN— Pope Francis said Wednesday that Lent is a good time to examine ourselves in the light of truth, to let go of distractions like overbooked calendars, and to improve our relationships with God and others.

“Let us set out on the path of fasting and use these 40 days to take stock of ourselves, to free ourselves from the dictatorship of full schedules, crowded agendas, and superficial needs, and choose the things that truly matter,” the pope said on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22.

“This,” he said, “is the favorable time to be converted, to stop looking at ourselves and to start looking into ourselves.”

Pope Francis marked the start of the season of Lent, the penitential period before Easter, with Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill.

Unlike years prior, Francis did not take part in a penitential procession from the nearby Church of St. Anselm before the Mass. The pope entered Santa Sabina in a wheelchair, which he has used regularly for almost one year since developing a problem with a ligament in his knee.

Cardinals, bishops, priests, the Benedictine monks of St. Anselm, the Dominican friars of Santa Sabina, and laypeople took part in the procession, which began with a brief moment of prayer at St. Anselm church. Catholics inside and outside the churches sang the Litany of the Saints as the procession prayerfully walked the roughly 1,000 feet between the two churches.

Pope Francis said at Mass that we should ask ourselves: “How many distractions and trifles distract us from the things that really count? How often do we get caught up in our own wants and needs, lose sight of the heart of the matter, and fail to embrace the true meaning of our lives in this world?”

“Lent is a time of truth, a time to drop the masks we put on each day to appear perfect in the eyes of the world. Lent is a time, as Jesus said in the Gospel, to reject lies and hypocrisy: not those of others, but of ourselves. Look them in the face and grapple [with them],” he said.

The Mass marked Pope Francis’ first time returning to the fifth-century Roman Basilica of Santa Sabina since February 2020.

In 2021, Francis celebrated the Ash Wednesday Mass for a small group of people in St. Peter’s Basilica because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, Cardinal Pietro Parolin celebrated the Mass in place of Francis, whose knee problem had worsened in that period.

The Ash Wednesday custom of the pope visiting the Church of St. Anselm before walking in procession to the Basilica of Santa Sabina for Mass was started in 1961 by St. John XXIII.

The Basilica of Santa Sabina is the mother church of the Dominicans and the first of the Lenten station churches. It is also Rome’s oldest church to still have its original architecture. The basilica’s large wooden door, which dates to the fifth century, has the oldest known depiction of the Crucifixion.

“Lent, then,” Pope Francis said in his homily, “is a season of grace when we can rebuild our relationship with God and with others, opening our hearts in the silence of prayer and emerging from the fortress of our self-sufficiency.”

“Lent is the favorable time when we can break the chains of our individualism and rediscover, through encounter and listening ― not solitude but through encounter and listening ― our companions along the journey of each day. And to learn once more to love them as brothers and sisters.”

Quoting from the 2006 Ash Wednesday homily of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, Francis said: “Jesus gives ‘advice that still retains its salutary value for us: external gestures must always be matched by a sincere heart and consistent behavior. Indeed, the inspired author wonders, what use is it to tear our garments if our hearts remain distant from the Lord, that is, from goodness and justice?’”

Pope Francis said Wednesday that there are many times our gestures and rituals do not reflect life and truth.

“Perhaps we perform them only to gain the admiration or esteem of others many times,” he said. “Let us remember this: in our personal life, as in the life of the Church, outward displays, human judgments, and the world’s approval count for nothing; the only thing that truly matters is the truth and love that God himself sees.”

He reflected on the Church’s call to strengthen one’s commitment to prayer, almsgiving, and fasting during the approximately 40 days of Lent.

“Let us set out on the path of charity,” he said. “We have been given 40 days, a ‘favorable time’ to remind ourselves that the world is bigger than our narrow personal needs and to rediscover the joy, not of accumulating material goods, but of caring for those who are poor and afflicted.”

“Let us set out, then, on the path of prayer and use these 40 days to restore God’s primacy in our lives and to dialogue with him from the heart, and not only in spare moments,” he continued.

“Let us not neglect the grace of this holy season but fix our gaze on the cross and set out, responding generously to the powerful promptings of Lent,” he said. “At the end of the journey, we will encounter with greater joy the Lord of life ― we will encounter him ― who alone can raise us up from our ashes.”