Page last updated at 18:46 GMT, Tuesday, 28 April 2009 19:46 UK

Pope Benedict fulfils quake pledge

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, L'Aquila

Pope Benedict XVI (R) greets earthquake survivors in Onna, Italy,  28 April 2009
Pope Benedict XVI blessed survivors of the quake and offered condolences

Pope Benedict promised he would go to the earthquake region in central Italy and now he has fulfilled his word.

He spent several hours touring villages and neighbourhoods where buildings have collapsed.

He met survivors; one woman offered her young child into the Pope's arms for a blessing. For a few moments, the pontiff embraced the boy.

In the village of Onna, there is barely a building undamaged.

It was raining so the Pope did not see all of it. Yet what he was shown would have been enough to impress upon him the level of destruction.

He later went into L'Aquila and saw the remains of a student accommodation block.

Again, he stared at the rubble and a firefighter talked him through what had happened, how a number of students had died there.

Sharing tears and sadness

He met some of the young people who had managed to get out alive. He held their hands; they in turn clutched his.

If what remains of my house fell down, at least I could move on
Joanna Griffith-Jones

It was a tight timetable the Pope was following, but he tried, at least, to give each the time they needed.

"I share your tears," he said at one point, "and your sadness."

Pope Benedict is possibly not as demonstrative as his predecessor, John Paul II.

Close crowds and the common touch may not be his natural setting or demeanour.

But he did seem at ease among those who had lost so much and wanted to talk at length.

Every tent

Around 65,000 people are still not back in their own homes. About 34,000 of those are in a variety of what have come to be called tent cities.

The Pope talks to a fire brigade chief as he visits the student dormitory in L'Aquila destroyed by the quake on 6 April

There are 161 of them scattered across the region of Abruzzo.

"I would like to meet each of you, go into every tent," the Pope said.

The largest gathering was at a police training academy in L'Aquila.

There, under yet more rain, the Pope held an act of solidarity for the victims of the earthquake.

It moved many in the audience to tears, men in military uniforms among them.

One of those who saw the Pope was Joanna Griffith-Jones. Originally from Devon and Liverpool in the UK, she now lives outside L'Aquila.

She was impressed by the presence of the Pope, though she prefers to concentrate on the future.

"I just want to get back to normal," she told me.

"If what remains of my house fell down, at least I could move on," she said, this time close to tears.

The Pope came to listen and to offer prayers.

He did that, and many found respite in what he offered.

For a few brief hours, he was able to let them dwell on matters other than those which now haunt their daily lives.

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