VATICAN CITY, FEB. 25, 2004 ( John Paul II began Lent by inviting the faithful to embrace austerity in order to reduce "to the essential the baggage" in the journey of life.

The Pope presided today at the rite of the imposition of ashes, which he said "underlines man's awareness of himself as sinner" and "the willingness to accept and translate into concrete choices one's adherence to the Gospel."

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, made the sign of the cross on the Holy Father's forehead with fingers covered in ashes, reciting the ancient Ash Wednesday formula "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The Pope then imposed ashes on Cardinal Sodano, as well as on some cardinals, bishops, priests, faithful and, in particular, his personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, and his physician, Dr. Renato Buzzonetti.

In the homily, addressed to more than 6,000 pilgrims in St. Peter's Basilica, the Pope described Lent, the 40 days in preparation for Easter, as an "intense time of spiritual training and of generous service to brothers."

"This necessarily entails sacrifices and renunciations. In fact, one must reduce the baggage to the essential so as not to be weighed down on the journey," he said.

"To become genuine disciples of Christ, it is necessary to deny oneself, to take up one's cross every day, and to follow him. It is the arduous path of holiness, which every baptized person is called to follow," the Pope explained.

John Paul II stressed that the "external gestures of penance have value if they are expressions of an interior attitude, if they manifest the firm determination to turn away from evil and walk on the path of goodness. Here is the profound meaning of Christian asceticism."

The Pontiff mentioned the means the Church has always proposed to live this important period of the Christian calendar.

In the first place, "humble and docile adherence to the will of God accompanied by incessant prayer," he said.

Then: "the penitential forms that are typical of the Christian tradition, such as abstinence, fasting, mortification and self-denial, even of goods that are legitimate in themselves."

Finally, the Pope pointed to the "concrete gestures of acceptance in relating to one's neighbor, which today's page of the Gospel evokes with the word 'alms.'"

Because of his state of health, John Paul II presided at the rite of the imposition of ashes in the Vatican basilica. In previous years, he presided at this ceremony in the Basilica of St. Sabina, on Rome's Aventine Hill.

On Sunday, the Pope begins his annual weeklong retreat.