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Pope heads to Milan hinterland to rally poor

Pope Francis will visit Milan to meet families on a housing estate, nap in a prison and hold a mass for hundreds of thousands of believers in nearby Monza © POOL/AFP / ETTORE FERRARI

VATICAN CITY, Mar 25 – Pope Francis visits Milan Saturday where he will meet families on a 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 will ring out when Francis gets off the plane at Milan-Linate airport outside the northern Italian city at 0800 GMT (7am).

The Argentine will make his first stop at the Case Bianche (White Houses), a run-down, soulless collection of concrete tower blocks from the 70s on the fringe 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.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church will pop into three homes for a chat, sitting down with an elderly couple, a family where one member suffers from a serious illness, and a Muslim family with several children.

“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 admits that “like all suburbs, it’s been somewhat forgotten by those in charge,” but insists that there social programmes in place to help the young or care for the elderly.

– Jailbird nap –

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After visiting the families, the pontiff will perform a blessing near a small Virgin of Lourdes sanctuary in front of over 8,000 locals.

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.

“Pope Francis inspires confidence, he says that the church must go out and that is what we are trying to do in our little parish,” he said, referring to the pontiff’s call for Catholics to leave their pews and get their hands dirty.

After a meeting with religious leaders, Francis will pronounce 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 themselves.

“Sometimes, a certain hypocrisy leads to people considering you only as wrongdoers, for whom prison is the sole answer,” he told jailbirds 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 the city of 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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