VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the earthquake-devastated town of Amatrice this morning, to pray with the residents on the feast day of his namesake, St. Francis.
The pope arrived by car in Amatrice, located in northern Lazio, at 9:10 am. On August 24 the central-Italian town, along with Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto, were severely hit by a massive 6.2 earthquake that claimed 297 lives, 234 of them in Amatrice. An additional 238 people were rescued from the rubble.
The pope was accompanied by Bishop Domenico Pompili of Rieti who, along with the Bishop of Ascoli, was only informed this morning about the pope’s visit, as the pontiff did not want it to be announced beforehand in the mass media.
Upon his arrival, Pope Francis was greeted by elementary and middle school students. He embraced and greeted the children one by one. He then spent time listening to their stories in the company of their teachers.
After his visit to the school, Pope Francis walked through the red zone and along the main street among the rubble. Alone and silent, he then paused before the rubble to pray.
“I am close to you and I am praying for you,” Pope Francis told earthquake victims.
The pope’s visit on the feast of St. Francis fulfills a promise he made at the August 28 Sunday Angelus, four days after the quake, to visit the central Italian towns that were hardest hit.
“I thought long and hard in the days following this great tragedy, that perhaps my visit would be more of a burden than a help, than a greeting, and I did not want to bother you,” he said. “That is why I let a little time pass, so that some things could be put in order, like the school. But from the first moment I felt I had to come to visit you, simply to say that I am close to you, I am close to you, nothing more, and that I am praying. I am praying for you!”
“Always look forward,” he told the residents. “Go forward with courage and help one another. We walk better together; we can’t go it alone.”
“Closeness and prayer, this is my offering to you. May the Lord bless you all. May Our Lady protect you in this moment of sadness, pain and trial.”
“There are so many loved ones who have left us. They have fallen here, under the rubble. Let us pray to Our Lady for them, let us all pray together,” he said. He then blessed the local faithful and recited a Hail Mary with them for the departed.
Commenting on the pope’s surprise visit, Fr. Savino d’Amelio, parish priest of St. Augustine in Amatrice, told Vatican Radio: “We priests didn’t know he was coming. We saw a group of journalists, the radio, tv, and various technicians. When the pope arrived, he went directly to meet the children. It was beautiful, very meaningful … It was an unexpected gesture, a little like the earthquake which arrived when we weren’t expecting it,” the priest said.
Regarding the pope’s decision to visit on the feast of his namesake, Fr. d’Amelio said: “It was very meaningful that he wanted to share this feast with us. This closeness, beginning with the children, was very beautiful, very meaningful.”
Nearly 4,000 people are living in tents near Amatrice after their homes were destroyed in the 6.2-earthquake.
After this morning’s visit, the pope spent two hours at the ‘St. Raphael Borbona Assisted Living Facility’ in Rieti before continuing on to nearby Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto.
The Umbrian town of Norcia, birthplace of St. Benedict, has also suffered considerable damage due to the earthquake, but was spared any injury or loss of life. The pope did not visit Norcia today, but reached the last leg in his journey with a visit to nearby San Pellegrino di Norcia.
Accompanied by the local bishop, the pope prayed in the red zone in front of the Church of San Pellegrino, which suffered considerable damage. He was accompanied by the Archbishop of Spoleto-Norcia, Most Reverend Renato Boccardo.
The Pope prayed in the red zone in front of the San Pellegrino church which was heavily damaged. He then greeted the people who were waiting for him outside and using the police megaphone, addressed these words to them: “I greet you all. I was close to you and I feel very close in this time of sadness and pray for you and ask the Lord to give strength to move forward. And now I invite you to pray all together the Hail Mary.”
At 3:30 pm Pope Francis returned to Rome.