Pope Francis made a surprise visit this morning to the Italian town of Amatrice that was devasted by a magnitude 6.0 earthquake on Aug. 24, and told survivors there, “from the first moment, I felt the need to be here.” Later in the day he will visit other places in the region that were also badly hit by the quake, including Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto.
He arrived there at 9:10 a.m. this morning in a VW Golf car with darkened windows, on a strictly private visit that took everybody by surprise, including the Italian media.
On the flight back to Rome from Azerbaijan last Sunday he confirmed that he would visit the earthquake zone, but “in a private way, alone, as a priest, as a bishop, as pope. But alone! I want to be close to the people.”
He went first to the only school in the town, now housed in a prefabricated container because the original supposedly shock-proof school collapsed in the quake. He spoke with students and teachers there and greeted many individually. They only learned that he was coming minutes before his arrival. “I am here simply to say that I am close to you, and I pray for you. Have courage. Move ahead!” he told them.
He then went to “the red zone,” the high-risk area where the devastation was greatest and where only fire fighters and rescue workers are allowed because of the dangerous situation there. He was accompanied by fire-fighters. Once there, he stood in silent prayer for some minutes.
A remarkable photo of this moment was captured and tweeted by Greg Burke, the Director of the Holy See press office who accompanied the pope on the visit.
Some 3oo people, very many of them children, were killed in the earthquake. 400 other people were injured and over two thousand persons were left without a home and are now living in tents. Francis visited them too among scenes of great emotion. He spoke and sought to console many of them, including a man who had lost his wife and children.
“I did not come earlier because I did not want to create problems. I took account of the conditions you were living in and I did now want to create a disturbance. I pray for you. Closeness and prayer, this is what I offer you,” he told them. He then recited the Ave Maria with them. A tearful woman shouted out aloud, “Thank you for the strength you give us!”
Pope Francis had felt the powerful earthquake in the Vatican on Aug. 24, and hours later at the Wednesday public audience in St. Peter’s Square, he expressed “his heartfelt sorrow and spiritual closeness” to all those hit by it. Putting aside his prepared text, he invited the thousands of Italians and pilgrims present to join him in praying the rosary for the earthquake’s many victims.
Later he sent a team of six members of the Vatican City State fire brigade to a particularly hard-hit community, Amatrice, “as a concrete sign of his closeness” to the people there. They joined the local civil protection operation. He also sent six members of the Vatican gendarmerie to help guarantee the security of people and their property in this place now reduced to rubble. And at his request, Vatican medical personnel and pharmacy also joined in the relief effort.
He phoned the local bishop, Msgr. Domenico Pompili, several times on that day and in the following weeks, to express his closeness to him and to the suffering people of Amatrice, and promised he would visit as soon as that was possible without creating problems for the ongoing rescue work.
Francis from the beginning has wanted to visit the earthquake zone to show his closeness to the people there. Today, he took everybody by surprise by arriving in Amatrice, unannounced, this morning, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi.