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 | Carol Glatz | Catholic News Service

Pope Praises Artists, Encourages Prisoners to Never Lose Hope

The rusted wrought iron frame and grate of an old well became a garden of crocheted flowers inside the courtyard of the Giudecca women's prison in Venice.

The handmade garlands also adorned the archways' brick columns and copper drainpipes.

Some 80 female detainees, prison staff and volunteers applauded and smiled when Pope Francis told them he wanted to meet them first on his one-day visit to Venice April 28 to tell them, "You have a special place in my heart."

Rather than being a stiff, formal affair, he said, he wanted their moment together to be a chance to "give each other time, prayer, closeness and fraternal affection."

"Today we will all leave this courtyard richer -- perhaps the one who will leave richer will be me -- and the good we will exchange will be precious," said the pope, who has visited over a dozen prisons in his 11-year-long pontificate.

"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 there," he said.

But the women's time in detention can also become an occasion of "moral and material rebirth" because no one can ever take away a person's dignity, he said. Instead, their dignity can be promoted through mutual respect and "the nurturing of talents and abilities, perhaps dormant or imprisoned by the vicissitudes of life, but which can re-emerge for the good of all and which deserve attention and trust."

It can be a time for a courageous look at and an evaluation of one's own life, to start again, "putting brick upon brick, together, with determination," he said. "Therefore, it is fundamental also for the prison system to offer detainees the tools and room for human, spiritual, cultural and professional growth, creating the conditions for their healthy reintegration."

Pope Francis urged the women to be brave, never to give up and always look to the future with hope. "I like to think of hope as an anchor that is anchored in the future, and we have the rope in our hands, and we go forward with the rope anchored in the future."

Several women presented the pope with gifts they and other detainees made in the prison's different workshops. One basket was filled with samples of their soaps, shampoos and other natural products and a red bag contained a handmade white zucchetto tailored by the women.

The pope also received a small basket filled with white and yellow crocheted roses made by the same women who decorated the courtyard. There was one red rose in the basket, an unidentified volunteer said, to symbolize the fight against violence against women.

The women's prison, located on Giudecca Island, south of the historic center of Venice, was the site of the Holy See's pavilion for the Venice Biennale art exhibition, which runs from April 20 to Nov. 24.

The women were encouraged to contribute to the exhibit, and one unidentified detainee told the pope they were "shocked and full of joy" to be asked to participate and to feel "useful."

Pope Francis is the first pope to attend the Venice Biennale, which is a prestigious international art exhibition featuring art, architecture, dance, cinema and music.

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education and curator of the Holy See's pavilion, welcomed the pope inside the prison chapel, which was decorated with dozens of festoons made from colorful fabrics, knits and other objects hanging from the ceiling.

In attendance were other curators, special guests and artists whose work was showcased in the pavilion: Maurizio Cattelan, Bintou Dembelé, Simone Fattal, Claire Fontaine, Sónia Gomes, Corita Kent, Marco Perego and Zoe Saldana and Claire Tabouret.

"We must not forget that in the history of the church's relationship with the arts there have also been ambiguities and harsh tensions," the cardinal said in his remarks.

The pope's visit to the biennale was a clear sign of ushering in "a new style" where different views can be "woven" together in freedom as part of a more "authentic journey we can make together" rather than an "obsessive assertion of power," the cardinal said.

"This pavilion is a testimony to that," he said, because they did not seek out "safe" artists but invited people to present what they themselves see. "In this sense, we chose to be tenants and neighbors rather than hosts."

Pope Francis said he wanted to meet and thank the artists personally; "the world needs artists," he said.

"It would be important if the various artistic practices could establish themselves everywhere as a sort of network of cities of refuge, cooperating to rid the world of the senseless and by now empty oppositions that seek to gain ground in racism, in xenophobia, in inequality, in ecological imbalance and aporophobia, that terrible neologism that means 'fear of the poor,'" he said.

"I beg you, fellow artists, to imagine cities that do not yet exist on the maps: cities where no human being is considered a stranger," he said, referring to the biennale's theme, "Strangers Everywhere."

"We are proposing to be 'brothers and sisters everywhere,'" he said.

The Holy See's pavilion is dedicated to the theme, "With my eyes," and the pope said, "We all need to be looked at and to dare to look at ourselves."

Jesus looks at everyone with "a love that does not judge but knows how to be close and to encourage. And I would say that art educates us in this type of outlook, not possessive, not objectifying, but neither indifferent nor superficial," he said.

The pope criticized the predatory exaltation and commercialization of art that risks "preying on creativity, stealing innocence and, finally, coldly instructing on what is to be done."

He also encouraged listening to women artists "because they have something important to teach us. I am thinking of artists such as Frida Khalo, Corita Kent or Louise Bourgeois, and many others."

"I hope with all my heart that contemporary art can open our eyes, helping us to value adequately the contribution of women, as co-protagonists of the human adventure," he said.