Pope Francis Makes Surprise Visit to Earthquake-Hit Towns in Italy

ROME — When Amatrice and several other small Italian towns were ravaged by an earthquake six weeks ago, Pope Francis made a promise to the residents there.

On Tuesday, he kept it.

Catching even local officials by surprise, the pope made an unexpected trip to the region, following through on a pledge to visit residents so that they could all pray together.

“From the first moment, I felt that I needed to come to you. Simply to express my closeness to you, nothing more,” the pope told locals in the area, where a total of nearly 300 people were killed on Aug. 24. “And I pray, pray for you. Solidarity and prayer: This is my offering to you.”

Francis explained that he had postponed his visit to the area because he feared it “would be more of a hindrance than a help,” Vatican Radio reported. “I didn’t want to be a bother, so I let a little time pass, so that some things could be resolved, like the school,” he said, before offering a blessing.

“Let’s go forward; there is always a future,” the pope said. “There are many who have left us, many who fell here, under the rubble.”

“Let’s always look forward. Forward, courage and helping each other,” he said. “It’s better to walk together; alone you don’t get far.”

The trip coincided with the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, after whom the pope chose to be named.
In Arquata del Tronto, the pope met with some of the 100 people still living in tents. Credit L’Osservatore Romano

In Amatrice, where more than 230 people died and the town was largely flattened, the pope first visited the town’s new 12-room school, a temporary structure built in record time so that the area’s elementary and middle school children would not lose a school year.

Later, he stood in silent prayer at the start of Amatrice’s main street, which remained piled high with rubble and the discarded remnants of family life: mattresses, cupboards, clothing and broken beams and doors.

The daylong visit was chronicled on social media by Greg Burke, the director of the Vatican’s press office, who posted a series of photographs of the pope’s encounters, including meetings with a man whose wife and two children died, with an older woman who had lost her home, and with a woman who clutched Francis’ hand through the open window of his car.

In Arquata del Tronto, about 15 miles north, he met with some of the 100 people still living in tents. The town’s mayor, Aleandro Petrucci, said that nearly all of the camp residents would be moved to more stable housing — either in hotels or in rented apartments — in the near future.

“The pope’s visit is more of a cure-all than any economic help, even though we need that because we have lost everything,” Mr. Petrucci told Sky News in Italy.

On Sunday, returning to Rome from Baku, Azerbaijan, Francis told reporters on the papal plane that he would visit the towns “privately, alone, as a priest, bishop and pope. But alone.”

“That’s how I want to do it,” he said. “I want to be close to the people.”

Six weeks after the quake, most of the 4,800 people who had been living in temporary camp housing have been moved to less precarious lodgings, while reconstruction efforts are still under discussion.

Father Savino d’Amelio, the Amatrice parish priest, told Vatican Radio that the situation in the town was “increasingly complicated” as the tent camps were dismantled and those who could return home did so, even as aftershocks continued to create anxiety. “There are also those who don’t know where they’ll go,” he said.

Mr. Petrucci, the mayor, expressed an optimistic note. “We are mountain people,” he said. “I am confident we will get over this.”