Pope Benedict XVI urged people to overcome indifference to the poor and share what they have with the needy as the Roman Catholic Church marked Ash Wednesday, which begins the austere period of personal sacrifice and reflection known as Lent.
"Lent is, in the end, through almsgiving, the occasion for sincere sharing of gifts received with one's brothers and for attention to the needs of the poorest and abandoned ones," Benedict told pilgrims and tourists at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square.
On Wednesday night, Benedict will celebrate Mass in a Rome basilica on the Aventine Hill. He will place ashes on the head of the faithful, a gesture symbolizing mortality.
Benedict told the audience that the imposition of ashes, in all Catholic churches, is an "austere and symbolic gesture."
He urged faithful to "look with fresh eyes at their brothers and their needs" and denounced "indifference and closure in one's own selfishness" in the face of the "terrible challenges of poverty of a large part of humanity."
The 40-day period of Lent includes Good Friday, when Christians recall Christ's crucifixion, and ends with the joyful celebration of Easter.