A 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck Italy early Wednesday, leaving more than a hundred people dead and thousands more displaced. As the death toll climbed and the country reeled from the disaster, Pope Francis postponed a planned portion of his weekly general audience to lead thousands of pilgrims through a prayer in St. Peter’s Square.
“I had prepared the catechesis for today, as for all Wednesdays during this year of mercy, focusing on the closeness of Jesus,” Francis said, according to Vatican Radio.
“However on hearing of the news of the earthquake that has struck central Italy, and which has devastated entire areas and left many wounded, I cannot fail to express my heartfelt sorrow and spiritual closeness to all those present in the zones afflicted.”
The pope then invited those gathered in the square to join him in praying “the sorrowful mysteries,” a portion of the Rosary prayer.
“I ask you to join me in praying to the Lord Jesus, who is always moved by compassion before the reality of human suffering, that he may console the broken hearted, and through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, bring them peace,” the pontiff said.
The earthquake struck roughly 85 miles east of Rome, causing severe damage in the Italian regions of Umbria, Lazio and Marche. The town of Amatrice in Lazio was virtually flattened by the disaster.
Francis dispatched six of the Vatican’s firefighters to aid with rescue efforts and help civil protection workers search for survivors in the rubble.
The pontiff went on to say in his address:
“Hearing the mayor of Amatrice say that the town no longer exists, and learning that there are children among the dead, I am deeply saddened.”