Vatican’s Venice Biennale pavilion leads visitors in Catholic tradition of visiting prisoners — By: Catholic News Agency

Pope Francis washes the feet of 12 young men and women, inmates at Casal del Marmo juvenile detention center on Rome’s outskirts, during a Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday, April 6, 2023. / Credit: Vatican Media

Vatican City, Mar 11, 2024 / 11:18 am (CNA).

Visiting prisoners is one of the Catholic Church’s corporal works of mercy originating with Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: “I was in prison and you visited me.”

All visitors to the 2024 Venice Biennale’s Vatican pavilion will take part in this Catholic tradition by entering an active women’s prison on Venice’s Giudecca island, where the inmates will play an active role in the exhibition of works by nine professional artists.

Upon arrival, visitors to the Vatican pavilion titled “With My Eyes” will be forced to leave their cellphones and IDs at the door, following the typical security protocols for family members visiting inmates.

Chiara Parisi, one of the curators of the Vatican pavilion, explained that an added benefit of making the visitors relinquish their cellphones is that people will be forced “to let go of this instrument through which they are accustomed to looking at reality around them” and to behold the art “with their own eyes.”

For Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, the prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education who is overseeing the pavilion, the idea to host an art exhibition at a prison was in part inspired by the many Catholic volunteers who are already serving in prison ministry.

It was also inspired by Pope Francis’ message to artists last year, which encouraged artists to take up themes such as “the defense of human life, social justice, [and] concern for the poor” as they consider the social responsibility of art.

“It is no coincidence that the title of the pavilion, ‘With My Eyes,’ wants to focus our attention on the importance of how we responsibly conceive, express, and build our social, cultural, and spiritual coexistence,” the cardinal said at a Vatican press conference on March 11.

“We live in an era marked by the predominance of digital and the triumph of remote communication technologies, which propose an increasingly deferred and indirect human gaze, running the risk of it remaining detached from reality itself,” he said.

Pope Francis will make history in April when he becomes the first pope to visit the prestigious Venice Biennale art exhibition on Sunday, April 28.

The cardinal recalled how when he first invited Pope Francis to visit the Vatican’s pavilion at the women’s prison, the pope replied with his usual sense of humor that this was something that he needed to go see “with my eyes,” making a joke about the title of the pavilion.

The 2024 Art Biennale and its Holy See Pavilion will be open to the public from April 20 to Nov. 24. Anyone wishing to visit the Vatican pavilion will need to register online for a guided tour of the prison.

Pope Francis will also visit a women’s prison in Rome during Holy Week this year. The pope has made it a nearly annual tradition since his election in 2013 to preside over Holy Thursday Mass inside a prison and to wash the inmates’ feet.

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