Pope Francis visits Venice, says his work isn't easy

By Yara Nardi

VENICE (Reuters) -Pope Francis made his first trip out of Rome for seven months on Sunday with a packed visit to Venice that took in an art exhibition, a prison and a Mass, with the 87-year pontiff acknowledging that life could be hard.

Hobbled by recent bouts of ill-heath, the pope read out three speeches and a homily during his five-hour stay, moving around the lagoon city by wheelchair, golf buggy and motorlaunch.

Although he appeared well and spoke in a clear voice, he also made a rare acknowledgement of the strains of the job.

"Please pray for me because this work is not easy," he told thousands of faithful gathered in St Mark's Square.

He started the day by flying by helicopter into a women's prison where the Vatican has set up an exhibition that is part of the Venice Biennale -- a prestigious international art show that has never been visited by a pope before.

The unusual decision to house the Holy See pavilion in a 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 told inmates and guards on Sunday.

"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".

Francis then addressed a group of young Venetians in front of the Santa Maria della Salute basilica, urging them not to spend their life glued to their smartphones, but to help others.

"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 Venice visit was the pope's first trip beyond Rome since a brief journey to France last September. He had been due to go to the United Arab Emirates in December, but pulled out after coming down with influenza and unexpectedly withdrew from a Good Friday procession in March "to preserve his health".

A painful knee ailment makes it hard for him to walk and on Sunday he regularly used a wheelchair, with Vatican News Television cutting away whenever he was helped into a chair to give a speech, or onto his white golf cart.

To let the pope easily reach St. Mark's Square 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 in boats and gondolas.

Francis acknowledged Venice's "enchanting beauty" in his homily at a Mass before some 10,000 people in the shadow of St. Mark's Basilica, one of the most celebrated churches in Italy.

But he said the city also faced an array of challenges, including climate change, the fragility of its cultural heritage, and overtourism.

"Moreover, all these realities risk generating ... frayed social relations, individualism, and loneliness," he said.

Venice introduced a 5-euro charge last week for day-trippers during peak travel periods in an effort to thin the crowds.

The pope's Venice trip was 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 Sept. 2-13.

(Writing by Crispian BalmerEditing by Gavin Jones and Frances Kerry)