After celebrating Mass to mark All Souls Day at the Nettuno American War Cemetery on Thursday, Pope Francis travelled to the Ardeatine Caves where he spent time in prayer at the memoral to victims of a Second World War massacre.
The Ardeatine caves, or Fosse Ardeatine as they’re called in Italian, are located on the south-eastern outskirts of Rome, on the site of a disused volcanic ash quarry.
It was there on March 24th 1944 that German occupying troops carried out a massacre of 335 Italian men of all ages and backgrounds. They were shot at close range, in retaliation for a partisan attack in the city centre the previous day that had killed 33 German policemen.
Hitler himself authorized the reprisal, which called for 10 Italians to be rounded up and shot for each victim of the attack in the central Via Rasella. Those killed in the caves represented a cross section of Italian society, some already in jail, including 57 Jews, others rounded up by security police in the vicinity of the attack. The youngest was a teenage boy, while the oldest was a man in his late 70s.
Massacre site discovered
The victims were forced to kneel in groups of five and shot with a bullet to the back of the head. Their bodies were piled up and covered with rocks inside the caves, which were then sealed with explosives.
It was not the war was over, more than a year later, that the massacre site was uncovered and the victims were exhumed for burial. Subsequently, the caves were declared a memorial cemetery and national monument.
Every year, on the anniversary of the killings, a solemn State commemoration is held at the monument. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis have also visited the site to pay tribute to these innocent victims of war.