00 5/31/2009 8:44 AM

April 28, 2009


The Holy Father left the Vatican at 9:00 to visit the earthquake-hit zone of the Abruzzo. Because of bad weather, he travelled by car instead of by helicopter as originally planned. He arrived in Onna at 10:30, where he met with the homeless victims temporarily sheltered there.

Pope visits quake victims

ROME, Italy, April 28 (CNN) -- Pope Benedict XVI met with survivors and offered prayers Tuesday as he visited towns hit hard in this month's Italian earthquake.

The Pope flew by helicopter from Vatican City to a tent camp near the village of Onna, where he led a prayer in the cold and rainy weather for the hundreds killed in the April 6 quake. .

The camp houses hundreds of families left homeless when the magnitude-6.3 quake destroyed their homes. Residents there welcomed the Pope, who kissed and hugged some of the children.

"I have come here personally to this splendid and hurt land of yours, which is living days of great pain and precariousness, to express in the most direct way my kind closeness," the P ope told residents. "I've followed the news with apprehension, sharing with you your consternation ... for the dead, along with your anxious worries about how much you've lost in a brief moment.

"I am now here with you and would like to hug each one of you with affection," he said. "The Church is all here with me, near your suffering."

The Pope then headed to the town of L'Aquila, near the epicenter. He planned to stop in the town's most venerated church, the 13th-century Basilica of Collemaggio, whose dome collapsed in the earthquake.

The basilica is the biggest in the surrounding Abruzzo region and is the burial place for Pope Celestine V, who has been interred there since 1327. Pope Benedict planned to kneel in prayer in front of Celestine's urn, the Vatican said.

The earthquake struck early in the morning, as many people slept. Nearly 300 people were killed and tens of thousands left homeless.

Eight of the victims died in a dormitory of the University of L'Aquila. The Pope visited the site of the dorm, then proceeded to the school of the Finance Police, in the small town of Coppito, about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from L'Aquila.

The Pope went there along with L'Aquila Mayor Massimo Cialente and Archbishop Giuseppe Mulinare and thanked the volunteers, rescue workers, and emergency workers who have helped in the wake of the disaster.

"It was especially moving to pray in front of the student house, where not a few young lives were destroyed by the earthquake violence," the pope said. "Going through the city, I have realized further how grave the earthquake consequences have been."

A few hundred people, including many rescue workers, were in the crowd. The Finance Guard school has been turned into the headquarters of the government's Civil Protection Agency, which is handling the emergency response and reconstruction in the quake zone.

Among those in the crowd was Tonino Risdonna, a resident of the small village of Tempera, near L'Aquila. Risdonna said he is too scared to return to his house, which was damaged by the quake, and that he won't go back until there have been no earthquakes for at least two or three months.

Risdonna said he came to see the Pope because "it is an emotional experience" that helps him release his "sorrow and tension."

Another man who lost two houses in the nearby town of Paganica and is now living in a tent said he came to hear the Pope because he "brings a word of comfort and a message of hope."

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said he plans to host a meeting of the G-8 in July at the school, an idea that is drawing mixed reactions in the area.

Risdonna, however, said he likes the idea because "it will put L'Aquila in the spotlight, and this will help uplift spirits and also bring some economic help."

Here is a translation of the Pope's words before he led the community in a prayer, and of the prayer itself:


Dear friends:

I have come in person to your splendid but wounded land which is living through days of great sorrow and precariousness, in order to express to you in the most direct way my heartfelt closeness.

I have bean close to you from the first moment, as soon as I learned thews of the violent earthquake which claimed almost 300 victims that night of April 6, along with numerous injured persons and great material damage to your homes.

I have been following the news closely, sharing your perplexity and your tears for tHE dead, as well as your fearful concern over all that you lost in one instant.

Now I am here with you: I would like to embrace you all, one by one, with affection. The entire Church is with me, alongside you in all your suffering, sharing your pain for the loss of family and friends, and desirous to help you rebuild your homes and churches and businesses that have collapsed or were gravely damaged by the earthquake.

I have admired and continue to admire the courage, dignity and faith with which you have faced this hard trial, showing great will not to fall down in the face of adversity.

Indeed, it is not the first earthquake that your land has known, but now, as in the past, you have not given in - you have not lost your spirits. There is in you a strength of the will that inspires hope. A saying dear to your elders becomes very relevant: "There are still so many days behind the Gran Sasso" [the great mountain chain that is the main geographic feature of the Abruzzo].

Arriving here, in Onna, one of the centers that has paid very highly in terms of human lives, I can imagine all the sorrow and suffering that you have had to bear these past few weeks.

If it were possible, I would have wanted to visit every town and every neighborhood, to visit all the temporary shelters and to be able to meet everyone.

I am very well aware that despite the great commitment of solidarity shown to you from everywhere, living outside your own homes, in tents, or in your cars, brings so many daily discomforts, especially because of the cold and the rain.

I think also of all the young people who have suddenly been forced to measure themselves against grim reality, to the boys and girls who have had to interrupt their schooling, and the older people whose daily routine has been disrupted.

One could say, dear friends, that you find yourselves somewhat in the state of mind of those two disciples at Emmaus, about whom the evangelist Luke narrates.

After the tragic event of the Cross, they were going back home, disappointed and quite bitter at the 'end' to which Jesus came. It seemed there was no hope left, that God had hidden himself and was no longer present in the world.

But, on the way, He joined up with them and started conversing with them. Even if they did not recognize him with their eyes, something was 'awakened' in their hearts: the words of that 'unknown man' rekindled in them the ardor and the faith that the experience of Calvary had extinguished.

And so, my dear friends, my presence among you today is simply a tangible sign of the fact that the Crucified Lord lives: he is with us, he rose again, and does not forget us and will never abandon us.

He will not leave your questions about the future unanswered. He is not deaf to the anguished cries of so many families who have lost everything: their homes, their savings, their work, and for some, even their loved ones.

Of course, his concrete response will come through our solidarity, which cannot be limited to the initial emergency but should become a plan that is stable and concrete in time. I encourage everyone - institutions and businesses -in their work to make this land rise again.

The Pope is hear today, among you, to give you a comforting word as well about those who died: they live in God now and expect from you a testimony of courage and hope. They hope to see this land be born again, to be adorned once more with homes and churches that are beautiful and solid.

And it is precisely in the name of these brothers and sisters that you must commit yourself to living, availing of that which does not die and which the earthquake has not destroyed and cannot destroy: love.

Love remains even beyond the abyss of our precarious earthly existence, because true love is God, and in God, whoever loves, wins over death and knows he does not really lose those he has loved.

I wish to conclude my words by addressing to the Lord a special prayer for the victims of the earthquake:

We entrust all our dear ones to You, Lord,
knowing that you do not take away life from those you love but transform it,
and that at the moment when our mortal dwelling
during our exile on earth is destroyed,
you are preparing an eternal and immortal one for us in paradise.
Holy Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
listen to the cry of sorrow and hope
that rises from this community so sorely tried by the earthquake.
It is the silent cry of mothers, fathers, young people
and even of the tiny innocents who have left this earth.
They have been torn away from their loved ones -
welcome them all to your peace, oh Lord, who is God-with-us -
the Love capable of giving life without end.
We need You and your strength
because we feel small and fragile in the face of death.
We pray to you, help us, because only your support
can make us rise again and lead us to recover together,
holding each of us, trustingly, by the hand along the path of life.
We ask this of you through Jesus Christ, our Savior,
in whom the hope of blessed Resurrection shines. Amen

Now, let us pray together the prayer our Lord taught us.
[Our Father....]

The Holy Father imparted his blessing, and then added:

My prayers are with you. We are all together, and the Lord will help us. thank you for your courage, your faith aND your hope.

He then proceeded to look at some of the ruins of the village,. and at 11:15, proceeded by car to L'Aquila, where he first visited the Basilica at Collemaggio.


Welcomed by the Rector, Don Nunzio Spinelli, the Pope entered through the Holy Door and venerated the urn of Pope Celestine V, leaving behind in tribute the pallium which was imposed on him at the Inaugural Mass of his Pontificate.


Shortly after 11:30, the Pope arrived in the vicinity of the House of Students serving the University of L'Aquila. Eight students died when the dorm building collapsed. The Pope spoke to the firemen who had been on the scene and to twelve students who represented the student body.

From L'Aquila, the Pope was driven to the Finance Guard School in Coppito to meet with the mayors and parish priests of the 69 towns most severely affected by the earthquake.

Afterwards, in the parade ground, where the funeral Mass had been held on Good Friday for the earthquake victims, the Pope addressed policemen, firemen, healthcare workers, and volunteers who have been working to help the victims. [Photos and story in the next post.]

Pope hears quake victims' 'silent cry'
By Philip Pullella

L'AQUILA, Italy, April 28 (Reuters) – Pope Benedict comforted survivors of Italy's earthquake Tuesday and asked God to heed the "silent cry" of its victims rising from the earth.

During a four-hour visit to the central Italian region devastated on April 6, he called for a "serious examination of conscience" about the destruction caused by the quake, some of which has been blamed on shoddy construction.

The Pope visited a tent city and consoled survivors, many of whom lost everything in the quake that killed nearly 300 people and left some 63,000 homeless.

In the regional capital of L'Aquila, which took the brunt of the tremor, he visited the destroyed basilica and prayed at the ruins of the university dormitory where eight students died.

L'Aquila means eagle in Italian and the Pope said: "This way, L'Aquila, even though it is wounded, will be able to fly again."

Speaking to officials and volunteers in the grounds of a police academy that has become the headquarters for relief efforts, the Pope touched on one of the most controversial issues arising from the disaster.

Magistrates have opened investigations into why some modern buildings, including L'Aquila hospital, were severely damaged even though they were supposed to have been built according to strict anti-quake regulations.

"There has to be a serious examination of conscience so that the level of responsibility, at any moment, is not lacking," he said to applause.

Investigators suspect that inferior quality sand and steel may have been used in some of the recent construction by builders who wanted to save money.

Benedict began his visit in the devastated village of Onna. Bad weather forced him to scrap plans to fly by helicopter to the area east of Rome and he was driven instead to the village that has been left completely uninhabitable.

Speaking under a light drizzle in a tent town for Onna's survivors, he read a haunting prayer: "It is the silent cry of the blood of mothers, fathers, little innocent children that rises up from this earth."

In a tent where the villagers of Onna brought broken statues and religious paintings damaged in the quake, residents prayed in what is now their church.

"It's difficult to pray in a tent but we do it with so much love," said Giovanni Paoletti, 48, who lost his mother-in-law and nephew.

"We hope to be able to return to the old church, to bring these statues back to where they belong. We dream of a normal life, to start living again."

NB: I found this paragraph in the AFP account of the Pope's visit questionable:

At a tent camp near L'Aquila, some people were critical of the pope for waiting three weeks before visiting the region. "Everyone came except him," Giovani Nobile told AFP. "It's been 22 days that we've been in the tents. I expected him at least at the funeral."

Not that some people would not feel that way and say so, but that AFP would report it without adding the simple statement that the Vatican had explained from the beginning that the Pope did not wish his visit to get in the way of urgent rescue, recovery and aid efforts, as his visit would inevitably, because of all the necessary organizational and security preparations necessary when the Pope visits anywhere outside the Vatican.

In this case, there was also concern because 1) aftershocks continued for several days after the first episode could conceivably expose the Pope to unnecessary risk; and 2) the earthquake took place right at the start of Holy Week, which is traditionally the most demanding time of year for the Pope to preside at a number of liturgies, which do take their physical toll especially on an 82-year-old.

Also, John Paul II did not visit Assisi till three months after the earthquake of 1996, for the same practical reasons that kept Benedict XVI from being in the Abruzzo earlier. I'm sure both Popes would have wanted to be on the spot ASAP, but they are not first-aid workers, and they do not need to be physically present to provide their moral support and their prayers.

P.S. The following AP report, towards the end of the piece, refers to this issue:

Pope demands soul-searching
after Italy quake


L'AQUILA, Italy, April 28 (AP) Pope Benedict XVI visited the scene of Italy's earthquake Tuesday to comfort survivors and demand "serious soul-searching" from those responsible for the shoddy construction blamed for many of the deaths.

Benedict visited a tent camp, a basilica and a university dormitory whose collapse epitomized the anguish of L'Aquila, a city of 70,000, and spurred criminal investigations into who was to blame for so many of the nearly 300 deaths in the 6.3-magnitude quake.

"As a civil community, some serious soul-searching is necessary, so that at any moment responsibilities never fail," the Pope told survivors and rescue workers during his first visit to the disaster site. "If this happens, L'Aquila - though wounded - will be able to fly again," Benedict said, referring to the city's name, eagle.

The April 6 quake claimed 296 lives in the dozens of towns and villages in the Abruzzo region of central Italy affected. About 50,000 people were driven from their homes, and thousands of buildings were toppled or heavily damaged.

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the shoddy construction blamed for many of the building collapses, looking into both the construction work and materials used amid allegations that sea sand was illegally mixed with cement, corroding it and weakening it.

The Pope's first stop was the tiny hamlet of Onna, which was leveled by the temblor, and where around 40 of its 300 residents were killed. Some 267 survivors live in a handful of tents clustered in a parking lot left muddy by a steady rain that fell as the Pope arrived.

The pontiff kissed a baby held up to him by his mother, and held the hands of many of the homeless who gathered for the intimate, brief visit.

"Had it been possible, I would have liked to visit each village, each neighborhood, go to each tent camp and meet everyone," the Pope told them, standing on a makeshift stage in front of a tent, a few hundred survivors just steps a way.

He appealed to government institutions and companies to turn the relief work into a long-term project for quality rebuilding.

The victims, the pope said, "are waiting to see the rebirth of their land, which must go back to be adorned with beautiful and solid homes and churches."

In L'Aquila, the regional capital, Benedict met with a dozen students outside what remains of L'Aquila's collapsed university dormitory, for days a main focal point of grief as rescue workers searched the debris for students trapped inside. Seven died at the site.

The students knelt before the pope and kissed his hand, some visibly emotional. One gave him a letter.

The dorm is one of the focal points of prosecutors' investigations, as well as L'Aquila's hospital, both of which were built after seismic standards in this quake-prone region were raised.

The Pontiff also visited the ruins of the 13th-century Santa Maria di Collemaggio basilica, the symbol of the city whose roof partially caved in during the quake.

Rubble was piled up inside the church and pillars were covered to support them as the Pope entered the ruins, firefighters by his side. The Pontiff prayed before the salvaged remains of Pope Celestine V, the 13th-century hermit and saint who was the only Pope to resign.

The Rev. Nunzio Spinelli, rector of the basilica, quoted the Pope as saying, "Now that I see the destruction with my own eyes I can see that it is even worse than I had imagined."

The Pontiff had been scheduled to fly to the area by helicopter, but heavy winds and rains forced the Vatican to scrap that plan. Benedict was driven instead, but by the time his speech was concluded in Onna, a strong sun had broken through the clouds.

"Imagine the Pope, coming to this village," marveled Concetta De Angelis, tears in her eyes just moments after the pope greeted her in Onna. "A Pope has never come here. This village isn't even on the map!"

Her friend, Silvana Paolucci, was even more emotional, saying she had wept as soon as she was face-to-face with the Pontiff. "He embraced us, he touched my cheek. It was beautiful," said Paolucci, who lost an aunt and nephew in the quake and whose home was rendered uninhabitable.

Among the civil protection workers greeting the Pope was Germana D'Onofrio, who cooks meals for the homeless. "I feed the body and the pope feeds the spirit," she said.

Benedict had said he had wanted to visit the area sooner, but didn't want to interfere with relief work.

In 1980 Pope John Paul II traveled to Naples almost immediately after a devastating quake - a visit that was criticized because the heavy security arrangements complicated rescue work. After the 1997 quake in Umbria, John Paul waited over three months before visiting the area.

Volunteer civil protection member Gianpiero Trulli, tending to the homeless in Onna, said the Pope's visit had slightly increased the workload of the relief workers. But he said he understood the significance of the visit for the survivors' spirits.

"For them, it's important that the Church is here," he said.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 6/12/2009 3:09 AM]