Image: Roberto Contu hangs from a line
Pier Paolo Cito  /  AP
Firefighter Roberto Contu hangs from a line to inspect the damaged dome of the Santa Maria del Suffragio church in L'Aquila, Italy, on Wednesday.
updated 4/8/2009 7:34:53 PM ET 2009-04-08T23:34:53

In the shadows of an earthquake-ravaged church, Marisa Giacomo fingered a rosary Wednesday as she sat among a pile of plastic bags stuffed with a few hastily salvaged possessions.

"I lost everything, but I still have God," she said stoically as bulldozers cleared away debris from the base of the medieval Anime Sante Church, shorn of its dome in the center of quake-stricken L'Aquila.

Italy's worst earthquake in three decades reduced some houses of worship to rubble. But in the run-up to Easter, it hasn't crushed believers' faith or their determination to celebrate Holy Week — the most sacred period on the Roman Catholic calendar.

Underscoring the deep devotion of the faithful across the hard-hit Abruzzo region, where religion is an ingrained part of rural Italians' everyday life, a few priests wandered through a makeshift tent city offering communion wafers to some of the thousands of people displaced by the disaster.

Mass for the homeless
There were plans in the works for a Mass for the homeless in L'Aquila. And in the town of Sulmona, famed for its re-enaction each spring of a 14th-century passion play recalling the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, residents planned to push ahead with a Good Friday procession through the cobblestone streets.

In his weekly public audience at the Vatican on Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI praised the relief operations as an example of how solidarity can help overcome "even the most painful trials."

"As soon as possible, I hope to visit you," the pope, who sent his condolences to the victims earlier this week, told survivors.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the visit was expected to take place soon after the Easter Sunday holiday, and that Benedict does not want to interfere with relief operations.

The Vatican granted a dispensation for Mass to be said at a funeral for many of the victims on Good Friday, the only day in the year in which Mass in not celebrated in the Roman Catholic church.

'Close to Jesus'
To be sure, not everyone affected by the quake was seeking solace or understanding in faith. Across L'Aquila, there were emotional outbursts as those who lost homes or loved ones wept bitterly and questioned the existence of God.

Only five people showed up for a Wednesday evening Mass in the quake-damaged village of Sant'Elia, though the sparse attendance may more accurately have reflected how most refugees have fled to tent camps or hotels on the Adriatic Sea.

"It's important to be close to Jesus at this moment," said the Rev. Mauro Orru, who presided over the ceremony outside the Church of St. Lorenzo because it was unsafe to venture inside its cracked walls.

But there was plenty of piety in evidence even among those who barely escaped with their lives. Some showed surprising resilience and strength of spirit.

Slideshow: Italy in mourning In the nearby village of Onna, where 40 of the 300 inhabitants were killed in Monday's quake, survivors were seen carrying decorative crucifixes out of the ruins of their houses. Given a chance to save just a few treasured possessions, many chose the religious items they had used to decorate their homes.

Across Europe, church attendance has declined in the past few decades as many believers — disillusioned by priestly pedophilia and molestations that have cost the Vatican millions in settlements — have drifted away from the faith.

Italy is certainly no exception from that trend. Yet people in rural areas such as Abruzzo tend to be unimpressed by the secular sophistication so prevalent in Rome or Milan — and these Italians typically cultivate far more intense ties to the church.

The hand of God?
Accustomed to hardship, some like Giacomo said they identified with the sufferings of Christ.

"This life is not easy. But it is not the only life," she said, alluding to her hopes of an afterlife: a tranquil one without earthquakes and aftershocks.

At midday Wednesday, a brief but strong aftershock gripped L'Aquila, kicking up plumes of dust as chunks of debris rained down from damaged buildings and sending fresh ripples of worry through the town's shaken population.

Seeking quake survivors in Italy Authorities sealed off the center of town as a precaution because of the danger of collapse posed by hundreds of unstable buildings. An Associated Press reporter who toured downtown with a fire department brigade saw empty streets, piles of rubble and flattened cars covered in bricks and fragments of concrete.

Among the buildings that sustained damage was L'Aquila's Center for Culture and Spirituality. It was deserted, as was the Church of Santa Maria del Suffragio — which had a ragged hole in its dome exposing the interior to the heavens.

Other places of worship, like the Church of Santa Margherita, seemed to have suffered no visible damage at all.

"It's strange," said a rescue worker who gave his name only as Enzo. "It's just like the people. Some died, some lived. You could say it was the hand of God."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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