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?’”