L'AQUILA, Italy -- Making a pilgrimage in an Italian mountain town, Pope Francis on Sunday hailed the humility of a 13th-century pontiff who resigned to live a hermit's life, and praised him for using his brief papacy to highlight the value of mercy and forgiveness.
Francis made a four-hour visit to L'Aquila in the central Apennine mountains, which was struck by an earthquake in 2009, killing 305 people and destroying much of the town. It is still being rebuilt.
The pontiff came to give a boost to a late summer tradition begun by Pope Celestine V 728 years ago to encourage the faithful to seek forgiveness for sins.
L'Aquila's Collemaggio Basilica contains the remains of Celestine, who resigned in 1294 after only several months in the papacy. As pontiff, Celestine initiated the August practice in which faithful could pass through the basilica's Holy Door. After meeting certain religious requirements, they can receive a plenary indulgence, which removes punishment for sin.
Aides brought Francis in a wheelchair to the basilica's austere, brown wooden door. After Francis, who has a painful knee problem, was helped to stand, he used a sturdy olive tree branch to rap three times on the door, which then was opened. With a ramp put in place, Francis limped into the basilica, then prayed silently before the mausoleum containing the remains of Celestine, whose face is covered with a silver mask.
Celestine was ridiculed by Dante in the "Divine Comedy" for cowardice in abdicating his papal role.
"The humble appear to the eyes of men as weak and losers, but in reality they are the true winners because they are the only ones who trust completely in the Lord and know His will," Francis said.
"Humility doesn't consist in devaluating oneself but rather in that healthy realism that makes us recognize our potential and also our misery," Francis said. He hailed the "courageous' Celestine V because "no logic of power was able to imprison or manage him."
Celestine reminded all that mercy and forgiveness help people to pass from "anguish and guilt to freedom and joy," Francis said.
While the helicopter that flew him from the Vatican to L'Aquila earlier Sunday morning kept circling above the town, with the pilot trying to find a break in thick fog so it could land, Francis said he was inspired to ponder the value of mercy.
"Finally, there was a little opening (in the fog), and he zoomed through," Francis said, encouraging people, when their lives are clouded by troubles, to similarly take advantage of an "opening" when the possibility of mercy presents itself.
Before Francis, the last pope to visit L'Aquila was his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who came to comfort quake survivors in 2009 and paid tribute to Celestine. Benedict would resign in 2013, the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to do so. He now lives in a monastery on Vatican grounds.
Francis, who is 85, has called resignation an acceptable option for pontiffs who feel they no longer can adequately lead the world's more than 1.3 billion Catholics.
He greeted townspeople outside the town's Duomo, or cathedral, which is still being repaired from quake damage, and visited with relatives of some of the victims.
Francis noted that inmates from area prisons were among well-wishers outside the cathedral. "In you, I salute a sign of hope, because in prisons there are so many, too many victims," Francis said.
D'Emilio reported from Rome.