ROME -- Performing an ancient ritual in a fifth-century basilica, Pope John Paul II smudged ashes Wednesday on the heads of cardinals, nuns and lay faithful as a reminder of their mortality and said people struck by tragedy need to regain faith and the joy for life.
At one point in the Ash Wednesday evening ceremony, the ailing, 81-year-old pope, who suffers from the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, gripped both arms of his chair to stay on his feet as an aide held out a liturgy book for him to read.
"Remember that you are ashes, and to ashes you will return," John Paul told the congregation in St. Sabina's Basilica on the Aventine hill, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome.
As the pope bowed his head, a cardinal dabbed ashes on his silver-white, thin hair.
Then the pope, sitting in his chair, put ashes on the heads of those faithful who came up, one by one, and leaned over in front of him.
The ashes ritual opens the solemn period of penitence, sacrifice and reflection leading up to Easter, which this year falls on March 31.
Images of sorrow
In his homily, John Paul appeared to refer to the sorrow the world has seen in the past year, although he named no specific place or event.
"We have before our eyes and we carry impressed on our souls images of suffering of enormous tragedies," John Paul said. "We also feel the weight of the bewilderment of so many men and women in the face of the sorrow of the innocents and of the contradictions of today's humanity."
"We need the help of the Lord to gain back faith and the joy of life," the pontiff said.
John Paul expressed hope that Lent would be a time of "profound reconciliation with God, with ourselves and with our brothers."
The church encourages its faithful to make sacrifices, during Lent.