VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI ushered in the spiritual fasting season of Lent on the day Christians call Ash Wednesday, telling crowds of pilgrims at the Vatican they must open their eyes to the poor and the needy.
"We too are called to be attentive to the needs of our suffering brothers and sisters as part of our Lenten observance," Benedict told more than 10,000 pilgrims at his weekly general audience in St Peter's Square.
"Lent is a favourable time to convert oneself to love, and to open our eyes to the needs of our brothers," the 78-year-old pontiff said as he began the 40-day period of penitence preceding Easter.
Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of Lent, is traditionally a time for spiritual self-examination.
In the afternoon, Benedict presided over prayers in the Church of St Anselm on Rome's Aventine Hill. Shortly afterwards, he led a procession of cardinals and other clergy as well as ordinary faithful to the nearby Basilica of St Sabina for mass.
His predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, began the annual procession and maintained it until overcome by infirmity in the later years of his life. He led the Catholic Church's Ash Wednesday ceremonies from his hospital suite last year.
At the mass -- as part of the worldwide practice for Catholics on Ash Wednesday -- the pontiff received the ashes in the shape of the cross high on his forehead from Slovak Cardinal Jozef Tomko.
Benedict used the ash, symbolising mortality and penitence, to mark the sign of the cross on the heads of dozens of his cardinals, bishops and priests who lined up before him in the church, which was packed with worshippers.
In his homily, he said Lent was a "a challenge" a "spiritual battle against sin and ultimately against Satan, the origin and cause of every sin."
"Love is the only Christian response to the violence which threatens peace in the world," said Benedict, marking the first Lent of his pontificate.
From next Sunday, the pope will cancel his public appearances for a week to undertake a series of "spiritual exercises" with members of the Roman Curia, or Vatican government, under the guidance of Cardinal Marco Ce, the former Venice Patriarch.
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