VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis made a surprise visit Tuesday to the site of the devastating August earthquake in central Italy, praying silently and alone amid the rubble in the hardest-hit area of the devastated town of Amatrice.
The Vatican announced the pope’s visit to the quake zone in central Italy shortly after his arrival, in keeping with Francis’ wish to keep the visit private.
“I didn’t come earlier so as not to cause problems, given your condition,” the pope told survivors, according to Vatican Radio. “I didn’t want to be a bother.”
After blessing residents, he urged them: “Let’s move forward. There is always a future.”
The visit coincided with the feast day honoring his namesake St. Francis.
Photographs released by the Vatican showed the pope praying amid the rubble with Amatrice’s medieval bell tower, still standing in what has become a symbol of hope, visible in the background.
The pope started his tour at the makeshift school set up in containers, meeting with more than 100 elementary and middle school students, some of whom gave him drawings. He also met with a man who lost his wife and children in the quake, the Vatican said.
The pope also met with firefighters and police, and ate lunch with around 60 people at a residence for the elderly and chronically ill, many of whom had been displaced by the quake.
Francis had made clear his intentions to visit the quake-stricken zone but without announcing a date. He indicated that he wanted to go alone “to be close to the people.”
After Amatrice, the pope visited the hard-hit towns of Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto.
The Aug. 24 quake killed nearly 300 people and left a further 4,000 homeless.