ROME – One year ago, on August 24, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake hit central Italy, leaving almost 300 people killed and many more without home or livelihood. Historic towns such as Amatrice, that counted the highest number of victims, were torn down and reduced to little more than piled rubble.
On this anniversary of the tragedy, Crux reached out to Italian Bishop Domenico Pompili of the Diocese of Rieti, which includes the majority of the earthquake struck area. The bishop spoke about the feeling of “hope and impatience” of those who, a full year later, still do not have suitable homes, due to slow progress on rebuilding the towns.
Pompili also recounted the grueling nights of fear and anguish that the community, and he himself, experienced in the aftermath of the devastating quake. Yet even in such a moment of trepidation, the bishop found a silver lining: The opportunity for the Church to “to live outside itself” and, in the spirit of Pope Francis’s call for encounter, be close to the community.
Following is the August 23 interview with Pompili.
Crux: One year later, how is reconstruction of the town of Amatrice and other nearby towns proceeding?
Pompili: It’s proceeding one step at the time, with some plans being completed and others that still need to be addressed. We are at the end of the beginning, meaning that we are now finishing to commence.
During the summer phase, there has been an influx of people thanks to the good weather and the tradition that sees many Romans commute in the summer. But certainly during the winter period, the numbers will return to the usual ones, if not a bit less.
Of course it’s important to verify if and how the beginning of school in Amatrice will lead families of young people to return, and this will be possible on two conditions: If work opportunities will be able to reappear, and if infrastructures will become more efficient in time. I am referring, especially, to the road conditions.
What have you been hearing from the local Catholic community? Is there anticipation, indignation, fear or hope for the future? What are you picking up on the field?
I would say that there is a feeling that people are waiting, but this has two aspects.
The positive aspect is that people are still hopeful that they can return and reclaim, with time, their normal lives. The negative aspect is that this wait, if it ends up being something far away, obviously does not lead anywhere. There is alternation within people between different sentiments: On one side, hope, and on the other, impatience.
How did Pope Francis as well as the international community show support, help and interest in this area after the earthquakes?
During this year, the show of solidarity was like a constant adrenaline, which helped us overcome the struggles as well as the harshness of the weather and conditions. We are truly submerged by a lot of attention, and I don’t want this type of closeness to stop at the end of the first anniversary, because it will require a lot of time, and it’s necessary to continue in order to get beyond this difficult period.
What can the Catholic Church, and especially the local diocese, do in order to help reconstruction not only of homes and infrastructures, but also of the community?
We guaranteed on the day after August 24 a diffused presence in various sections, and thanks also to the volunteers from different parts of Italy, even to the most isolated people in the most remote sections who had the opportunity to have an almost daily encounter, in order to have – especially in the beginning – first necessity goods like food, clothing and tents, but also going forward a kind of closeness that did not let them feel abandoned.
The second thing that we are trying to do is to support some projects with small local farms and ranches, so that they may start to go forward on their own. We also made ourselves available for some partnerships with various manufacturers.
Lastly, there remains the issue of the cultural heritage, which for the most part is religious and represents not just the memory of the territory – that enjoys many beautiful attractions that we cannot let fall into nothing – but also an attractive potential [for tourists].
There is, on our part, a determination to bring this issue before the state authority, so that it in some way follows through. As I said it will take a long time, but time in this case is the enemy of the properties we want to salvage. The main point is that the path of the Church is to be there, on the territory, and to not physically abandon people. This is a transition, but it will not be a short one.
How did you personally experience the earthquake?
I think a bit like everyone. There were moments when I was physically scared, and moments when the aftershocks became standard. We feared for our lives, so it would happen that, for long weeks, I would have difficulty falling asleep in the evening, and would keep the light on. I knew what to do in case … but this was a first reaction. So, a bit of fear and uncertainty.
At the same time, I also experienced a newfound ease in the relationship with people. It’s known that in emergency situations, all the walls, and social and religious structures, tend to fall. This reassured me a lot when I met with people, and found a great accessibility and closeness. This was a very positive aspect, because it really allowed me to become a part of the community. And keeping in mind that feeling of hope and impatience, because some things got done while others are still in the process of being completed, I think that religion must maintain a close proximity in order to help things progress.
I personally experienced the earthquake on October 30 (a magnitude 6.6 earthquake). During the earthquakes of August 23-24, I was in Lourdes, so I did not feel it, but since many followed, I was there for all the rest.
Today Italy shakes once more, this time in Ischia on the sad coincidence of the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed Amatrice. What can you tell the people who are suffering, or are afraid as you were once? What’s your advice and hope?
First of all, I would say that we are truly very close to them, because we know what they are going through. At the same time, I want to reassure them, because the earthquake is a dramatic page that reveals us in our frailty, but at the same time, it allows us to rediscover certain feelings, like that of belonging to a community, being neighbors, overcoming many things that in normal times are not experienced.
Do you believe that by witnessing the efforts made by the Catholic community, including Pope Francis, to revive the area, there was a reawakening of faith?
I believe that when the Church gets out of its habitual formats and, like in this case, enters in direct contact with the territory, not only do people benefit, but also the Church regains its original purpose, which is to be at the service of a community.
This was obviously also felt by the people. I met with a young woman who told me that she did not know the Church, and that she had an opportunity to encounter it on this occasion. This is an example that does not describe every experience, but it serves to prove, I think, that there was an opportunity for the Church to live outside itself and therefore meet more people. Like that image dear to Pope Francis, where the Church is like a field hospital, we must strive to get to the more vital questions without getting lost in so many details.
This image that the pope evoked early on in his pontificate was obviously a great comfort to us, but it was also apparent in the style with which he visited us on October 4, which was absolutely informal, where he preferred direct contact with children and old people without any formality. He came with a car instead of the helicopter, burdening himself with the two-hour drive back and forth, in an effort to give his visit a ‘pastoral’ quality.
In this, the pope is surprising in his normality. He does it very spontaneously, with nothing constructed.
You mentioned “the end of the beginning” concerning the process of rehabilitation. What do you believe is the next step?
This is what I would like to stimulate in those who are responsible: The rhythm with which we are proceeding, and in what direction. Obviously the provisional living facilities (where many people in the area still live today) are a temporary solution, so I would like to know what happens afterwards.
I believe, in this sense, that it is necessary to extend our gaze beyond the immediate present. From this, we will be able to understand if the reconstruction will have a concrete direction, which is obviously what we all hope for.