VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II ushered in the solemn Lenten season by urging the faithful at an Ash Wednesday ceremony to pay particular attention to the plight of children, who more than anyone else "need to be defended and protected."
The service was held this year in the Vatican instead of at a Roman basilica to spare the ailing pontiff a trip across the city.
John Paul made his comments in St. Peter's Basilica before placing ashes on the heads of cardinals, bishops, and rank-and-file Catholics -- a ritual sign of one's own mortality that opens Lent, the church's period of penitence, sacrifice, and reflection that ends with Easter.
In his homily, delivered in its entirety and in a strong and clear voice, John Paul asked the faithful to pay particular attention to the plight of children around the world this Lenten season, saying they are often abandoned and in need of special care.
"Who more than the defenseless and fragile young need to be defended and protected?" John Paul said.
In his annual message for Lent last month the pontiff said "little ones" must be protected from violence, including sexual abuse, forced military service, and exploitation for organ trafficking.
The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by a clergy sex abuse scandal involving children in the United States and other countries.
The pope last month also discussed the toll of AIDS on children, particularly in Africa.
For years, John Paul marked Ash Wednesday at St. Sabina's Basilica, a 5th-century church on Rome's Aventine Hill. Yesterday's ceremony was held at the Vatican, eliminating the need for the pope to make the trip across Rome and transfer from cars to the wheeled decorative chair he has been using to get around.
John Paul, 83, no longer walks or stands in public because of hip and knee problems and Parkinson's disease. Over the past year, he began having assistants read his homilies, but lately he has been reading the texts himself and has appeared stronger.
Yesterday's ceremony launched a busy few weeks for the pope, capped by Holy Week, the seven days starting with Palm Sunday that precede Easter on April 11.