Pope Francis’s Visit to Venice

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

On Sunday, Pope Francis embarked on his first excursion outside of Rome for 2024 and his first pastoral visit to Venice. His trip coincided with the world-renowned art exhibition known as the Venice Biennale.

While in Venice, Pope Francis met with female prisoners, artists, and youth, emphasizing the message of his visit, “Remaining United in the Love of Christ.”

The pontiff arrived in Venice by helicopter on Sunday morning, where he first visited with more than 80 inmates at a women’s prison on the island of Giudecca. Pope Francis offered a greeting to every person individually and remarked in his address that each of them holds a “special place” in his heart.

In his address, Pope Francis recognized the “harsh reality” of prison, which, at times, “give[s] rise to a great deal of suffering.” But he also offered a message of hope, noting that prison “can also become a place of rebirth” and “no one can take away a person’s dignity.”

While speaking to the female prisoners in the facility’s internal courtyard, Pope Francis said, “A stay in prison can mark the beginning of something new, through the rediscovery of the unsuspected beauty in us and in others, as symbolized by the artistic event you are hosting and the project to which you actively contribute.”

The Holy Father was referring to the Holy See’s pavilion for the Venice Biennale, which is hosted in a prison facility. The Vatican first participated in the event in 2013; this year, Pope Francis became the first pope to attend the Biennale, which dates to 1895. Titled “With My Eyes,” the Holy See’s exhibition location inside a prison—a first for the Biennale—brings to the forefront the message of inclusivity of the marginalized, a hallmark of Pope Francis’s pontificate.

Artists created various works inspired by the incarcerated women, such as personal reflections transcribed on lava slabs and small paintings based on family photos, which are displayed throughout the prison facility. 

After meeting with the inmates, Pope Francis met with the artists behind the exhibition at the Church of La Maddalena (Prison Chapel). Thanking them for their work, the pontiff said, “The world needs artists” because “art has the status of a ‘city of refuge,’ an entity that disobeys the regime of violence and discrimination in order to create forms of human belonging capable of recognizing, including, protecting and embracing everyone. Everyone, starting from the last.”

Pope Francis further elaborated on the exhibition’s title and said, “We all need to be looked at and to dare to look at ourselves. In this, Jesus is the perennial Teacher: He looks at everyone with the intensity of a love that does not judge, but knows how to be close and to encourage.”

The pontiff then traveled by motorboat to the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute where he met with young people from Venice and the dioceses of the Veneto region. While in the square in front of the Basilica, Pope Francis encouraged the youth to follow the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who “arose and went,” and urged them to “Fearlessly go against the current: take life into your hands, get involved; turn off the TV and open the Gospel; get off your cell phone and encounter people!”

A delegation of young people then accompanied Pope Francis to St. Mark’s Square for the celebration of Mass, which was attended by more than 10,000 people. The pontiff’s homily focused on the message of unity and reminded the faithful that by “remaining united to Christ, we can bring the fruits of the Gospel into the reality we inhabit.”

Following the recitation of the Regina Caeli, Pope Francis privately venerated the relics of St. Mark inside the Basilica before returning to the Vatican.

Highlighting the importance of inclusivity, unity, and hope, Pope Francis’s visit to Venice during the Biennale will continue to inspire and motivate people around the world.