Pope visits Italian village hit hardest by earthquake

Pontiff tells survivors to remember the dead as they rebuild their shattered lives

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the quake destroyed village of Onna

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the destroyed village of Onna, near Aquila. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

Tearful mothers held out their children to be blessed by the pope today when he visited the Italian village hit hardest by an earthquake earlier this month.

Speaking in Onna, where 40 out of 300 inhabitants perished in the disaster, Benedict XVI told survivors to fix their minds on their dead relatives and friends as they strove to rebuild their shattered lives.

"It is precisely in memory of these brothers and sisters that you must commit yourselves afresh to living," the pontiff said. Beginning a tour of the disaster zone, he said those who survived the destruction when the earthquake struck on 6 April should rely on "that which does not die and which the earthquake did not destroy – love". The pope continued: "Love remains beyond the scope of this precarious terrestrial existence of ours, because true love is God."

To one side of the pontiff were lines of the blue tents that are now home to many of Onna's residents. Clearly visible in the other direction were the collapsed roofs and crumbled walls of their houses.

From the third storey of one of the buildings, 71-year-old Adriano Bettucci was rescued. "Thirteen of our neighbours were killed," he said. "We heard the screams." Bettucci's fragile health meant he was unable to walk the few hundred paces needed to hear the pope. "It's not that our faith has been shaken by the earthquake," he said. "But you do ask yourself why this happened."

The pope said he admired "the courage, dignity and faith" with which the people of Abruzzo, one of Italy's most rugged regions, had faced up to the disaster. The cold and rain with which they have had to contend since the earthquake was only too evident yesterday. Such was the visibility that the helicopter that was due to fly the pope from Rome was cancelled and instead he arrived by car.

The earthquake claimed 297 lives. About 66,000 people have been left homeless, of which 40,000 are living in tents.

After the pope addressed villagers, he left for L'Aquila where he visited a ruined students' residence and the severely damaged 13th-century basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. It was there that one of his predecessors – Celestine V, the hermit pope – was consecrated and buried. The pope left the pallium he received on the first day of his own pontificate on Celestine's undamaged glass-topped tomb.

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Pope visits Italian village hit hardest by earthquake

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 13.53 BST on Tuesday 28 April 2009. It was last updated at 14.06 BST on Tuesday 28 April 2009.

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