VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis smudged ashes on the bowed heads of prelates, nuns and ordinary Catholics during Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The ritual marks the start of Lent, a period of penitence, prayer and self-sacrifice as the faithful prepare for Easter.

The ashes symbolize mortality.

In his homily, Francis 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 has said people are hurt by the "evil they commit and suffer" and need to experience forgiveness.

Since becoming pontiff in 2013, Francis wants the church to be less severe and judgmental.

Copyright 2016 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.