Pope Francis puts ashes on a cardinal's head during a penitential procession on Ash Wednesday in Rome, Italy on February 26. (REUTERS Photo)
ROME, February 26 (Reuters): Pope Francis led the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics into the penitential season of Lent, reminding them on Ash Wednesday that everyone will be "dust in the universe" regardless of their status on earth.
The pope presided at a traditional service leading a procession between two churches on the streets of Rome and saying Mass, opening the 40-day season that leads to Easter.
Cardinal Jozef Tomko, 95, rubbed ashes on the pontiff's head and then Francis rubbed them on the heads of others, in an age-old ritual to remind people of their mortality.
"The dust sprinkled on our heads brings us back to earth; it reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We are weak, frail and mortal," he said in his sermon.
"Centuries and millennia pass and we come and go; before the immensity of galaxies and space, we are nothing. We are dust in the universe," he said.
During Lent, which is marked by repentance, fasting and reflection, the faithful are also called on to practice more good deeds, such as alms giving, and to be particularly close to the needy and the suffering.
"All around us, we see the dust of death. Lives reduced to ashes. Rubble, destruction, war. The lives of unwelcomed innocents, the lives of the excluded poor, the lives of the abandoned elderly," he said.
During Lent, Catholics are called on to give up something, such as sweets.
Earlier on Wednesday, at his general audience in St. Peter's Square, Francis added a modern twist to the list of things to quit during the season and beyond: insulting people on social media.
Some Ash Wednesday services were cancelled or limited in areas of northern Italy hit by the spread of coronavirus.
Five days after the first case was confirmed in northern Italy, more than 300 new infected people were reported, mostly in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto, 12 people have died and accusations are mounting that the emergency has been mishandled.
A number of people wore masks in St. Peter's Square at the Wednesday audience but only one person was seen wearing one at the pope's Ash Wednesday service.