L’AQUILA, Italy (AP) — Making a pilgrimage to an Italian mountain town, Pope Francis on Sunday saluted the humility of a 13th-century pontiff who resigned to live the life of a hermit and praised him for using his short papacy to emphasize the value of mercy and forgiveness.
Francis made a four-hour visit to L’Aquila in the central Apennine mountains, which was hit by an earthquake in 2009, killing 305 people and destroying much of the town. It’s still being rebuilt.
The pontiff came to give impetus to a late summer tradition started by Pope Celestine V 728 years ago to encourage the faithful to ask for forgiveness for sins.
The Collemaggio Basilica of L’Aquila contains the remains of Celestine, who abdicated in 1294 after only several months in the papacy. As pontiff, Celestine initiated the Augustan practice whereby the faithful could pass through the Basilica’s Holy Door. After meeting certain religious requirements, they can receive a full indulgence, which removes the penalty for sin.
Aides brought Francis in a wheelchair to the austere, brown wooden door of the basilica. After Francis, who has a painful knee problem, was helped to his feet, he used a stout olive branch to knock three times on the door, which then opened. Having installed a ramp, Francis limped into the basilica and then prayed silently in front of the mausoleum containing the remains of Celestinus, whose face is covered by a silver mask.
Celestine was ridiculed by Dante in the Divine Comedy for cowardice in abdicating his papal role.
“The humble appear in the eyes of people as weak and defeated, but in reality they are the true winners because they are the only ones who fully trust in the Lord and know His will,” Francis said.
“Humility does not consist in underestimating ourselves, but in that healthy realism that makes us recognize our potential and also our unhappiness,” Francis said. He hailed the “courageous” Celestine V because “no logic of power could imprison or manage him.”
Celestine reminded everyone that mercy and forgiveness help people move from “agony and guilt to freedom and joy,” Francis said.
As the helicopter that flew him from the Vatican to L’Aquila earlier Sunday morning continued to circle above the city, the pilot trying to find a break in the thick fog so he could land, Francis said he was inspired to reflect on the value of mercy.
“Finally, he opened a small opening (in the fog) and zoomed in,” Francis said, encouraging people, when their lives are clouded by problems, to similarly take advantage of an “opening” when the possibility of mercy presents itself. .
Before Francis, the last pope to visit L’Aquila was his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who came to comfort survivors of the 2009 earthquake and paid tribute to Celestino. Benedict will resign in 2013, the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to do so. He now lives in a monastery in the Vatican.
Francis, who is 85, called resignation an acceptable option for pontiffs who believe they can no longer adequately lead the world’s more than 1.3 billion Catholics.
He greeted townspeople outside the city’s Duomo cathedral, which is still being repaired from earthquake damage, and visited relatives of some of the victims.
Francis noted that inmates from local prisons were among the well-wishers outside the cathedral. “To you, I greet a sign of hope, because in prisons there are so many, so many victims,” Francis said.
D’Emilio reported from Rome.