ROME Pope Francis, leading the world's Roman Catholics into the penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, urged them not to be obsessed with possessions and to shun a culture where everything can be bought and sold.
Ash Wednesday is the day Christians are reminded of mortality and hear the phrase 'from dust you came and to dust you shall return' as ashes are smudged onto their foreheads.
Francis led a traditional procession between two churches on the streets of Rome's Aventine Hill to begin the pre-Easter season of Lent, when Christians are called on to fast, pray and give alms to the needy.
In the second church, a cardinal smudged ashes onto the pope's head and then the pontiff, wearing purple vestments, did the same to cardinals accompanying him.
"We live in a world that is always more artificial, in a culture of 'making,' of 'profit,' where without realizing it, we exclude God from our horizon," he said in his homily at a Mass concluding the service.
"Often today, giving freely is not part of daily life, where everything can be bought and sold, where everything is calculated and measured," he said.
Francis, leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, said the best way to give was to not expect anything in return.
This way, he said, people can free themselves "from the obsession of possession, from the fear of losing what we own, from the sadness of those who do not want to share their well-being with others".
Next Monday, the pope will leave the Vatican with his top aides for a week-long Lenten spiritual retreat at a religious institute south of Rome.
It is the first time in living memory that the retreat, a week of preaching and prayer, will be held outside the Vatican.
It is the latest example of Pope Francis instilling more simplicity in the Vatican. He has already given up the spacious papal apartments for a suite in a guest house and uses a Ford Focus instead of the papal limousine.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope, is carrying on a tradition of his religious order to hold spiritual retreats away from peoples' usual place of work in order to inspire detachment and contemplation.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Tom Heneghan)