Pope Francis made a surprise visit this morning to the town of Amatrice, devastated by an earthquake that struck on August 24.

He arrived at 9.10 a.m. in the town before moving on to nearby Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto, also towns hard hit by the quake. The 6.2 magnitude earthquake quake took 297 lives, 234 of them in Amatrice, while 238 people were rescued from the rubble.

On arrival in a VW Golf, the Pope was welcomed by school children after which he visited a prefabricated school built after the natural disaster, and a so-called “red zone” — the most affected area of the town. He stopped in front of the rubble to pray.

The Pope was accompanied by Bishop Domenico Pompili of Rieti who, along with the Bishop of Ascoli, only heard the Pope would be visiting this morning, according to Italian media reports. Francis did not want to the visit preannounced in the mass media.  

On the papal plane back from Azerbaijan on Sunday, he said he was studying three dates to make the visit and that he would choose one on his return. “I'll do it privately, alone, as a priest, as a bishop, as Pope, but alone, that's how I want to do it,” he said. “I would like to feel, to be close to the people. But I still don't know how.”

At the Angelus of August 28, four days after the earthquake, Francis had said he would go to the affected areas "as soon as possible" but delayed doing so in order to avoid hampering relief efforts.

Using a microphone to address the people of Amatrice today, he said: "I did not want to be a bother, so I left a little time to pass. I'm just here to say that I am close to you and that I am praying for you. Closeness and prayer, this is my offering to you." 

He added: "We have to move forward despite the many loved ones who have left us. We have to keep moving forward together, to help each other, because alone it is difficult. One walks better together; alone no." 

“God bless all of you," the Pope continued. "May Our Lady keep you in this moment of sadness. Let’s go forward. There are so many loved ones who have left us. They have fallen here, under the rubble, let’s pray to Our Lady for them." The Pope then recited a Hail Mary with the local faithful.

Mid-morning, the Holy Father visited the "San Raffaele Borbona" nursing home in the province of Rieti, where he greeted 60 patients, most of whom were elderly people displaced by the earthquake. The Pope joined them for lunch.

The Pope then went on to visit Accumoli and Arquata del Tronto where he met and showed solidarity with the local people. 

According to Vatican Radio, he made a brief stop at the Command Post of the Fire Brigade in Cittareale - base camp for the earthquake zone.  He then traveled to Accumoli where he greeted several people including the mayor, in Piazza San Francesco and he prayed in front of the Church of San Francesco destroyed by the earthquake.

From there he traveled to Pescara del Tronto, stopping three times along the way to greet small groups of people. Shortly before 2 p.m., the Holy Father arrived in Arquata del Tronto.

During the visit to Pescara Del Tronto and Arquata del Tronto, the Pope was accompanied by Bishop Giovanni D'Ercole of Ascoli Piceno. In Arquata del Tronto, the Pope greeted more than 100 people, addressing a few words to them and praying with them. He also visited a make-shift school that was set up in the tent city.

This evening Pope Francis arrived at the last stop on his journey through the earthquake zones: San Pellegrino di Norcia in Umbria.  He was accompanied by Archbishop Renato Boccardo of Spoleto-Norcia. According to Vatican Radio, the Pope prayed in the red zone in front of the San Pellegrino church which was heavily damaged. 

He then greeted the people who were waiting for him outside and using the police megaphone, addressed these words to them: "I greet you all. I was close to you and I feel very close in this time of sadness and pray for you and ask the Lord to give strength to move forward. And now I invite you to pray all together the Hail Mary." 

The Pope left the region at 3.30 p.m. and did not visit the town of Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, which suffered some damage but no loss of life. The Benedictine monks there have had to move out of the town and live in makeshift accommodation nearby following significant internal damage to the basilica and monastery. 

After a lengthy lull in aftershocks, a relatively large 3.4 magnitude tremor struck close to Norcia at 2.41 p.m. this afternoon but some distance away from the town the Pope was visiting. 

More images of the visit (L'Osservatore Romano/Arquata del Tronto):