Image: A woman kneels over a coffin
Luca Bruno  /  AP
A woman kneels over a coffin prior to the collective funeral for quake victims in L'Aquila, central Italy, on Friday.
updated 4/10/2009 9:33:28 AM ET 2009-04-10T13:33:28

Grieving relatives collapsed over flower-draped caskets of the victims of Italy's worst earthquake in three decades as the nation joined in a day of mourning Friday.

Pope Benedict XVI urged quake-stricken people to have courage and keep up hope.

The pope told the survivors that he felt "spiritually among you" and that he was sharing their anguish.

The message was read Friday by the pope's secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, at the opening of a collective funeral for 205 victims of the quake.

Benedict plans to visit the quake area in the coming weeks.

Special dispensation
The Vatican granted a special dispensation to hold a Mass on Good Friday, the only day on the Roman Catholic calendar on which Mass is not normally celebrated.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi and other key government officials were among the 10,000 mourners expected for the outdoor ceremony beneath Abruzzo's snowcapped mountains. The funeral is being held outdoors because none of the region's churches is stable enough for the ceremony.

"Today will be a moment of great emotion. How can one not be moved by so much pain?" Berlusconi said, shortly before departing for L'Aquila for the funeral.

"These are our dead today, they are the dead of the whole nation," said the premier.

Volunteers guided mourners to the caskets of their loved ones. Each of the simple varnished wooden coffins, graced with either a cross or a crucifix and with a bouquet of flowers, bore a golden plaque with the name of the deceased, the dates of their birth and death.

Small white caskets holding the quake's youngest victims rested on larger coffins, presumably those of a parent or close relative. Berlusconi said 20 children and teenagers were among the dead.

Slideshow: Tragedy A woman grieved over a casket draped in soccer jerseys and holding the silver-framed photo of a smiling young man with thick blond hair.

Inside the enormous hangar that has served as a makeshift morgue, dark-suited men reflected solemnly on the moment, gingerly touching several plain wooden caskets that remained there before the ceremony, as if in a final farewell.

"Today is a 'Via Crucis' for each of us," said Stefania Pezzopane, one of the top officials of this medieval city in central Italy. The "Via Crucis," or "Way of the Cross," is the procession held on Good Friday in commemoration of Jesus' suffering before crucifixion.

The 6.3-magnitude quake struck Monday at 3:32 a.m., catching many in their sleep. It collapsed buildings and reduced entire blocks to piles of rubble. L'Aquila was among the hardest hit, but the quake damaged some 26 towns in the central mountainous region of Abruzzo.

Halting step toward normalcy
On Thursday, L'Aquila took a halting step toward normalcy as butchers, bakers and other shopkeepers reopened for business and firefighters began entering buildings to grab essential items for the homeless.

Aftershocks, including some strong ones, continued to rattle residents — nearly 18,000 of whom are living in tent camps around the stricken region. An additional 10,000 have been put up in seaside hotels, out of the quake zone, and the Italian railway provided heated sleeping cars at L'Aquila's main train station, where nearly 700 people spent the night.

Firefighters surveyed for damage as far away as Rome, 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of the quake's epicenter.

More on Italy | earthquakes

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Video: Thousands mourn quake victims

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