· Vatican City ·

A network of ‘cities of refuge’ where no one is a stranger

 A network of ‘cities of refuge’ where  no one is a stranger  ING-018
03 May 2024

During his pastoral visit to Venice on Sunday, 28 April, Pope Francis met with artists in the Church of La Maddalena, the Giudecca women’s prison chapel. The Pope urged them to use their creativity and various forms of art “to imagine cities that do not yet exist on the maps: cities where no human being is considered a stranger”. The following is a translation of the Holy Father’s words.

Your Eminence,
Your Excellencies,
Mr Minister,
Mr President,
Distinguished Curators,
Dear Artists!

I very much wanted to come to the Venice Art Biennale to return a visit, as is good custom among friends. Last June, in fact, I had the joy of welcoming a large group of artists to the Sistine Chapel. Now I am coming “to your home” to meet you personally, to feel even closer to you and, in this way, to thank you for what you are and what you do. And at the same time, from here, I would like to send everyone this message: the world needs artists. This is demonstrated by the multitude of people of all ages who frequent art venues and events; I like to remember among them the Vatican Chapels, the first Pavilion of the Holy See built six years ago on the Island of San Giorgio, in collaboration with the Cini Foundation, as part of the Biennale of Architecture.

I confess that beside you I do not feel like a stranger: I feel at home. And I think that, in reality, this applies to every human being, because, for all intents and purposes, art takes on 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 least.

Cities of refuge are a biblical institution, already mentioned in the Deuteronomic code (cf. Dt 4:41), intended to prevent the shedding of innocent blood and to temper the blind desire for revenge, to guarantee the protection of human rights and to seek forms of reconciliation. 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 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”. Behind these oppositions there is always rejection of the other. There is the selfishness that makes us function as solitary islands rather than collaborative archipelagos. I beg you, artist friends, to imagine cities that do not yet exist on the maps: cities where no human being is considered a stranger. This is why when we say “foreigners everywhere”, we are proposing “brothers everywhere”.

The title of the pavilion in which we find ourselves is “With my eyes”. 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. And I would say that art educates us in this type of outlook, not possessive, not objectifying, but neither indifferent nor superficial; it educates us in a contemplative gaze. Artists are part of the world but are called to go beyond it. For example, it is more urgent now than ever to know how to distinguish clearly art from the market. Certainly, the market promotes and canonizes, but there is always the risk that it will prey on creativity, steal innocence and, finally, coldly instruct on what is to be done.

Today we have chosen to meet all together here, in the Giudecca women’s prison. It is true that no one has a monopoly on human suffering. But there is joy and suffering that unite in the feminine in a unique form and which we must listen to, 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 adequately value women’s contribution as co-protagonists of the human adventure.

Dear artists, I remember the question Jesus addressed to the crowd, concerning John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out?” (Mt 11:7-8). Let us keep this question in the heart, in our heart. It impels us towards the future.

Thank you! I keep you in my prayer. And please, pray for me. Thank you.