Italians in the Abruzzo region are still recovering from the devastating earthquake that struck the area northeast of Rome on April 6, killing 300 and injuring thousands. Tuesday morning Pope Benedict visited victims of the disaster, and said his "poor presence" is intended as a "tangible sign of the fact that the crucified Lord is risen and does not abandon you."
The Holy Father was originally scheduled to travel to the region by helicopter, thus enabling him to survey some of the damage from the earthquake, but poor weather forced the Pontiff to take a car.
The first stage of his visit took him to the village of Onna, where he spoke to the people living in temporary shelters.
The Pope noted that the village was "one of the places that paid a high price in terms of human lives," and said that he was close to the victims "from the first moment." "I followed the news with great concern, sharing your disbelief, your tears for the dead, and your anxious concerns for what you lost in an instant."
"Now I am here among you," Benedict said to the quake survivors, adding, "I would like to embrace you affectionately, each one. All the Church is here with me, accompanying your sufferings, participating in your pain for the loss of relations and friends, and desirous to help you rebuild the homes, churches and businesses that collapsed or were seriously damaged in the tremor. I have admired and continue to admire the courage, dignity and faith with which you face this serious trial, showing great determination not to give way to adversity."
The Holy Father also addressed the difficult conditions that the victims are facing. "I am well aware that, despite the solidarity forthcoming from all sides, there are many daily discomforts involved in living outside your homes, in cars or tents, especially because of the cold and rain."
"My poor presence among you," he offered, "is intended as a tangible sign of the fact that the crucified Lord is risen and does not abandon you. ... He is not deaf to the anguished cries of so many families who have lost everything: houses, savings, work and sometimes even human lives. Of course, His tangible response comes though our solidarity, which cannot be limited to the initial emergency but must become a stable project over time. I encourage everyone, institutions and companies, to ensure that this city and this land may arise again."
Those who died in the disaster were not far from Benedict XVI's mind either.
"They are alive in God," he said, "and await from you a testimony of courage and hope. They hope to see the rebirth of their land, which must once more adorn itself with houses and churches, beautiful and solid. ... Love remains, even beyond the river-crossing of this our precarious earthly life, because true Love is God. Those who love overcome death in God, and know that their loved ones are not lost."
The Holy Father then concluded his remarks by reading a special prayer for the victims of the earthquake.
The basilica of Collemaggio in L'Aquila was the next stop on the Pope's visit. At the church he pronounced a brief prayer in front of the casket containing the remains of Pope St. Celestine V, one of the few things to have survived the earthquake in the basilica. As a sign of his spiritual participation, Benedict XVI left on the casket the pallium with which he was vested at the beginning of his own pontificate.
The House of Students of L'Aquila also received a visit from the Pope, who greeted university students who used to reside there. Some of the students were killed in the quake.
The first leg of the Pope's mission of mercy came to an end with a visit to the training school of the "Finance Guard" where, having greeted mayors and pastors from the 49 communities most affected by the tremor, he gave an address to those present.