Pope Francis meets prisoners and artists in first visit to Venice

Trip comes ahead of longest foreign visit of Pope Francis' papacy

Pope Francis attends a meeting with young people at the Square in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, Italy, on April 28. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Pope Francis offered encouragement to prisoners, artists and young people in Venice on Sunday, with his first trip of the year testing his mobility and resilience after a number of health scares in recent months.

The 87-year-old pope travelled by helicopter, motorlaunch and golf buggy, hopping the city's famed canals on his first visit to Venice since he became pontiff in 2013.

The unusual decision to house the Holy See pavilion in the jail highlighted Francis' repeated calls for society to rally around the poor and neglected, including prison populations.

"Prison is a harsh reality, and problems such as overcrowding, the lack of facilities and resources, and episodes of violence, give rise to a great deal of suffering. But it can also become a place of moral and material rebirth," he said.

"Let us not forget that we all have mistakes to be forgiven and wounds to heal," he said, before meeting some of the artists who put together the exhibition entitled "Through My Eyes".

Art should be used to help rid the world of racism, inequality and a fear of the poor, the pope told them.

Francis then met a group of young Venetians in front of the imposing Santa Maria della Salute basilica, with Venice's Grand Canal as a backdrop, reading out a long speech peppered with impromptu comments.

"Is this boring?" he asked at one point, to cries of 'no'. "You are very polite," he said, to laughter.

The pope urged young people not to spend their life glued to their smartphones, saying it was vital to get out and help other people, rather than be self-absorbed.

"If we always focus on our self, our needs, and what we lack, we will always find ourselves back at the starting point, crying over ourselves with a long face," he said.

The half-day visit to Venice was the pope's first trip beyond Rome since a brief journey to France last September. He had been due to attend a climate change conference in the UAE in December, but pulled out shortly beforehand after coming down with influenza.

Francis uses a cane or a wheelchair to move around due to a knee ailment, and suffers from repeated bouts of bronchitis and flu. He unexpectedly withdrew from a Good Friday procession in March "to preserve his health", but has looked well since then.

On Sunday he mainly used a wheelchair, with Vatican News Television cutting away whenever he was helped into a chair to give a speech, or on to his white golf cart.

To let him easily reach St. Mark's Basilica in the heart of Venice, workers erected a pontoon bridge spanning the Grand Canal that he was driven across, watched by hundreds of onlookers on land and dozens of boats and gondoliers.

The Venice trip is the first of four planned inside Italy in the next three months. He is scheduled to visit Verona in May and Trieste in July, and is also expected to attend a June summit of Group of Seven (G7) leaders in Bari.

In September, he is set to embark on the longest foreign trip of his papacy, travelling to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Singapore from September 2 to 13.

Updated: April 28, 2024, 11:17 AM