Pope Francis In Milan Hinterland To Rally Poor

Pope Francis In Milan Hinterland To Rally Poor

 Pope Francis arrived in Milan Saturday to meet families on a working class housing estate, nap in a prison and hold a mass for hundreds of thousands of believers in nearby Monza.

Pope Francis arrived in Milan Saturday to meet families on a working class housing estate, nap in a prison and hold a mass for hundreds of thousands of believers in nearby Monza.

Bells in church towers across over 1,000 diocese rang out as Pope Francis landed at Milan-Linate airport outside the northern city.

The Argentine made his first stop at the Case Bianche (White Houses), a run-down collection of concrete tower blocks from the 1970s on the edge of a wealthy city better known for its football clubs and fashion weeks.

"It is a symbolic choice. The pope wanted to arrive at the heart of Milan by passing first through the outskirts," parish priest Augusto Bonora told AFP, saying the parishioners were "wildly excited" when they heard Francis was dropping by.

Around 10,000 residents and people from neighbouring districts turned out to see the head of the Roman Catholic Church, whose schedule included visiting a Muslim family.

"The Case Bianche is a suburb like many others, with all the associated problems, from security to small-time trafficking," Bonora said.

With its dirty stairwells, broken mailboxes and defective lifts, the neighbourhood has become "a little ghettoised", said Mirella, 68, whose son lives on the estate in one of the forgotten corners of the country's economic capital.

Bonora said that "like all suburbs, it's been somewhat forgotten by those in charge," but insisted there were social programmes to help the young and care for the elderly.

Jailbird Nap

After visiting the families, the pontiff performed a blessing near a small Virgin of Lourdes sanctuary.

"The Church does not stay in the centre waiting, it goes out to meet all, on the outskirts. It also reaches out to non-Christians and also non-believers," said the pope.

He thanked the crowds for gifts including a photo of the local Virgin of Lourdes statue, which was recently restored.

"As your Madonna was restored, so the Church always needs to be restored," added the Holy Father.

Francis's visit is "a unique occasion. Many people, non-Christians included, came to ask for passes (to attend the blessing)," said Cesare Nera, who lives in a nearby neighbourhood and has taken part in the preparations.

After a meeting with religious leaders, Francis pronounced the Angelus prayer in front of the Gothic Cathedral in Milan's historic centre, before heading to the 19th century San Vittore prison.

There he will sit down with 100 inmates and staff for a lunch of risotto, escalope Milanese and panna cotta prepared by the prisoners.

"Sometimes, a certain hypocrisy leads to people considering you only as wrongdoers, for whom prison is the sole answer," he told inmates in November at a special audience for prisoners at Saint Peter's Basilica.

"We don't think about the possibility that people can change their lives. We put little trust in rehabilitation ... into society. But in this way we forget that we are all sinners and often, without being aware of it, we too are prisoners," he added.

The 80-year-old will take a short break in the packed programme after lunch, with a likely siesta in the prison chaplain's quarters.

Refreshed, he will then head to Monza, north of Milan, where he will celebrate mass in a giant park before an expected crowd of 700,000 people to the strains of over 9,000 hymn-singing choristers.

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