ROME: Pope Francis on Tuesday made an emotionally charged visit to the Italian mountain communities devastated by an August 24 earthquake, praying silently amid the ruins and urging survivors to have faith in the future.
In keeping with his desire to make a relatively low-key visit to an area where nearly 300 people died, the 79-year-old pontiff’s trip to the shattered town of Amatrice and the devastated nearby hamlets of Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto was only announced to the media after he had arrived.
In a poignant image tweeted by the Vatican press office, Francis stood briefly in silent prayer in the closed-off “red zone” of Amatrice, his stooped silhouette framed by the shells of condemned buildings and piles of rubble.
“I did not come earlier so as not to create any problems, knowing the state you were in,” he told survivors. “I did not want to cause any bother.”
“But from the outset I felt I had to come to you, simply to tell you that I am with you, nothing more, and that I am praying for you.”
After blessing the crowd in Amatrice and saying a brief Ave Maria prayer, Francis issued a message of hope for an area still struggling to come to terms with the scale of Italy’s deadliest quake since the 2009 L’Aquila disaster.
“We go forward, there is always a future,” he said on what was the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, the venerated Catholic figure in whose honor Francis selected his papal name.
“There are many dear ones who have left us, who fell here under the masonry. We pray to the Madonna for them, we all do together.
“Always look forward. Go forward, have courage and help each other. We walk better together, on our own, we cannot get there.”
The pope’s first point of call in Amatrice had been a set of colorful pre-fabricated buildings serving as a makeshift school.
Amatrice’s combined elementary and middle school was destroyed in the quake despite having been expensively renovated to make it quake resistant a few years ago.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke also tweeted pictures of the pope greeting youngsters and clasping the hands of a visibly moved middle-aged man who, the Vatican said, had lost his wife and two children in the disaster.
Accompanied by Domenico Pompili, the bishop of Rieti, Francis toured the “red zone” area of the devastated town, which remains closed to the public for fear of fresh movement of masonry which could pose a risk of injury or worse.
Francis had confirmed his intention to visit the quake-hit area on his flight home from Azerbaijan on Sunday, saying he wanted to visit “privately, alone, as a priest, a bishop, a pope.”