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Pope Francis visits Venice in first trip outside of Rome in seven months

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Pope Francis made his first trip out of Rome in seven months on Sunday with a visit to Venice that included an art exhibition, a stop at a prison and a Mass.

Venice has always been a place of contrasts, of breathtaking beauty and devastating fragility, where history, religion, art and nature have collided over the centuries to produce an otherworldly gem of a city. But even for a place that prides itself on its culture of unusual encounters, Francis' visit on Sunday stood out.

Francis traveled to the lagoon city to visit the Holy See's pavilion at the Biennale contemporary art show and meet with the people who created it. But because the Vatican decided to mount its exhibit in Venice's women's prison, and invited inmates to collaborate with the artists, the whole project assumed a far more complex meaning, touching on Francis' belief in the power of art to uplift and unite, and of the need to give hope and solidarity to society's most marginalized.

Italy Pope
Pope Francis prays inside St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, Italy, Sunday, April 28, 2024. The Pontiff arrived for his first-ever visit to the lagoon town including the Vatican pavilion at the 60th Biennal of Arts. Alessandra Tarantino / AP

His trip began at the courtyard of the Giudecca prison, where he met with women inmates one by one.

"Paradoxically, 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," Francis told them.

The 87-year-old pontiff then met with Biennale artists in the prison chapel, decorated with an installation by Brazilian visual artist Sonia Gomes of objects dangling from the ceiling, meant to draw the viewer's gaze upward.

The Vatican exhibit has turned the Giudecca prison, a former convent for reformed prostitutes, into one of the must-see attractions of this year's Biennale, even though to see it visitors must reserve in advance and go through a security check. It has become an unusual art world darling that greets visitors at the entrance with Maurizio Cattelan's wall mural of two giant filthy feet, a work that recalls Caravaggio's dirty feet or the feet that Francis washes each year in a Holy Thursday ritual that he routinely performs on prisoners.

The exhibit also includes a short film starring the inmates and Zoe Saldana, and prints in the prison coffee shop by onetime Catholic nun and American social activist Corita Kent.

APTOPIX Italy Pope
Pope Francis is greeted by Gondoliers upon his arrival in Venice, Italy, Sunday, April 28, 2024. The Pontiff arrived for his first-ever visit to the lagoon town including the Vatican pavilion at the 60th Biennal of Arts. Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Francis' dizzying morning visit, which ended with Mass in St. Mark's Square, represented an increasingly rare outing for the 87-year-old pontiff, who has been hobbled by health and mobility problems that have ruled out any foreign trips so far this year.

"Venice, which has always been a place of encounter and cultural exchange, is called to be a sign of beauty available to all," Francis said. "Starting with the least, a sign of fraternity and care for our common home."

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Pope Francis delivers his message as he meets with young people in front of the Church of the Salute in Venice, Italy, Sunday, April 28, 2024. The Pontiff arrived for his first-ever visit to the lagoon town including the Vatican pavilion at the 60th Biennal of Arts. Alessandra Tarantino / AP

During an encounter with young people at the iconic Santa Maria della Salute basilica, Francis acknowledged the miracle that is Venice, admiring its "enchanting beauty" and tradition as a place of East-West encounter, but warning that it is increasingly vulnerable to climate change and depopulation.

"Venice is at one with the waters upon which it sits," Francis said. "Without the care and safeguarding of this natural environment, it might even cease to exist."

in the exhibit as tour guides and as protagonists in some of the artworks.

Ahead of his trip, Francis sat down with "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell during an hourlong interview at the guest house where he lives in Rome. 

During the interview, Francis pleaded for peace worldwide amid the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

"Please. Countries at war, all of them, stop the war. Look to negotiate. Look for peace," said the pope, speaking through a translator.

Pope Francis with CBS News anchor Norah O'Donnell
Pope Francis speaks with "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell, April 24, 2024. CBS News

He also had a message for those who do not see a place for themselves in the Catholic Church anymore. 

"I would say that there is always a place, always. If in this parish the priest doesn't seem welcoming, I understand, but go and look elsewhere, there is always a place," he said. "Do not run away from the Church. The Church is very big. It's more than a temple ... you shouldn't run away from her."

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

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


An extended version of O'Donnell's interview with Pope Francis will air on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, May 19 at 7 p.m. ET. On Monday, May 20, CBS will broadcast an hourlong primetime special dedicated to the papal interview at 10 p.m. ET on the CBS Television Network and streaming on Paramount+. Additionally, CBS News and Stations will carry O'Donnell's interview across platforms. 

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