VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI encouraged people across the globe to wholeheartedly return to God during his last public Mass today as pontiff of the Catholic Church.

“May the invitation to conversion, to ‘return to God with all our heart,’ resonate strongly in us, accepting his grace that makes us new men and women, with the surprising news that is (found in) participating in the very life of Jesus,” Pope Benedict said at St. Peter’s Basilica on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13. Mass was held at 5pm local time.

Benedict XVI’s homily was his last public homily as the head of the Church after he announced on Monday that he will be resigning on Feb. 28.

The Ash Wednesday Mass normally takes place in the Basilica of St. Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill each year. Because it was Pope Benedict’s last public Mass, however, the liturgy was moved to St. Peter’s Basilica so that more individuals could participate.

Pope Benedict noted that the “return of heart” to God, which was read at Mass as the first reading from the second chapter of Joel in the Bible, is a reminder that not only involves the individual, but the entire community.  

“The community dimension is an essential element in faith and Christian life, and Christ came to gather the children of God who are scattered into one,” said the 85-year-old Holy Father, who has shepherded the Church since 2005.

“The ‘we’ of the Church is the community in which Jesus brings us together, and faith is necessarily ecclesial.”

During Lent in particular, “each person must be aware that the penitential journey cannot be faced alone, but together with many brothers and sisters in the Church.”

The Pope said this witness reveals the face of the Church, which is, at times, disfigured by the sins of disunity and division in the body of Christ.

“Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry is a humble and precious sign for those who have distanced themselves from the faith or who are indifferent.”

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone greeted Pope Benedict after Mass as the Holy Father received a standing ovation of more than two minutes — an overwhelming applause that echoed in the basilica.

Pope Benedict will hold his last public audience on Feb. 27 in St. Peter’s Square instead of Paul VI Hall, where it normally takes place this time of year.