Pope visits towns in central Italy devastated by earthquake

IMAGE: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Amid the devastation wrought by an earthquake in
central Italy, Pope Francis quietly prayed and offered words of consolation to
survivors and those assisting in relief efforts.

Later, when crowds pressed around him, the pope used a megaphone to tell the
people of Amatrice that he had wanted to visit sooner, but felt showing up
immediately after the Aug. 24 quake would have complicated relief efforts and
“would have been more of a hindrance than a help.”

“From the first moment, I felt that I needed to come to you! Simply to
express my closeness to you, nothing more. And I pray; I pray for you!”
the pope said Oct. 4.

The epicenter of the earthquake was close to Norcia, the birthplace of St.
Benedict, and had a magnitude of 6.2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Amatrice was the hardest-hit town, accounting for 234 of the estimated 290
deaths, according to the Italian Civil Protection office.

Shortly after news of the quake, the pope had led 11,000 pilgrims in St.
Peter’s Square in praying the rosary for the victims. He also sent six Vatican
firefighters and six Vatican police officers to Amatrice to help search for
victims trapped under the rubble.

During his flight to Rome from Azerbaijan Oct. 2, the pope told journalists
that while he was unsure when he would visit the towns devastated by the
earthquake, he wanted to do it alone.

“I will do it privately, alone, as a priest, bishop and pope. But
alone. That’s how I want to do it and I want to be close to the people,”
he said.

Two days later, the pope, accompanied by Bishop Domenico Pompili of Rieti,
visited the newly built Capranica Elementary School in Amatrice and greeted the
students individually before making his way to the “red zone,” an
area completely destroyed by the earthquake and cordoned off due to safety
concerns.

Looking over the rubble where the town center once stood, the pope prayed in
silence for the victims of the quake.

Pope Francis also visited the St. Raphael Borbona Assisted Living Facility
in Rieti, where he greeted each of the home’s 60 elderly patients and ate lunch
with them. Many of the residents were displaced from Amatrice when their homes
were destroyed.

Before departing Amatrice for the neighboring towns of Accumoli and Arquata
del Tronto, the pope told the crowd gathered around him that he had two simple
gifts for them.

“Closeness and prayer: this is my offer to you,” he said.
“May the Lord bless you all and Our Lady protect you in this moment of
sadness, pain and trial.”

After giving them his blessing, Pope Francis led the people in praying a
Hail Mary for those who died.

“Always look ahead,” he told the survivors. “Have courage and
help each other. One walks better together, alone we go nowhere. Go
forward!”

Father Savino d’Amelio, pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Amatrice, told
Vatican Radio that the pope’s visit was “very beautiful and very
meaningful.”

“It was an unexpected gesture, sudden, a bit like the earthquake that
came when no one was expecting it,” he said.

With aftershocks continuing, including the night before the pope’s visit,
people are sleeping with one eye open, “ready to run,” the priest
said.

Pope Francis continued visiting towns in the afternoon, briefly visiting
firefighters in Cittareale before
arriving in Accumoli. After greeting the town’s mayor and survivors, the pope
spent several minutes in silent prayer in front of the Church of St. Francis,
which was destroyed by the earthquake.

He then traveled to the nearby towns of Pescara del Tronto and Arquata del
Tronto, where he was greeted by more than 100 people and visited a makeshift
school among the tents for the displaced.

Echoing his words in Amatrice, the pope encouraged the people to not lose
hope and joined them in prayer for their loved ones who died in the quake.

“I wanted to be close to you right now and say to you that you are in
my heart and I know, I know your suffering and your anguish. I also know about
your deceased loved ones and I am with you,” he said.

Pope Francis ended the day with a visit to the town of San Pellegrino di
Norcia, where he prayed in front of the town’s badly damaged church and greeted
the townspeople before returning to Rome.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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