Pope makes first visit out of Rome for seven months after health scares

Pope Francis has made his first trip out of Rome for seven months with a visit to Venice where he asked worshippers to "pray for me". 

It was a rare acknowledgement of the strains of the job as he told thousands of the faithful gathered in St Mark's Square: "This work is not easy".

During a five-hour visit on Sunday, the pontiff visited an art exhibition and prison as well as conducting mass.

The 87-year-old unexpectedly withdrew from a Good Friday procession in March "to preserve his health".

He had been battling respiratory problems all winter that made it difficult for him to speak at length.

In December, he was due to go to the United Arab Emirates, but pulled out after coming down with flu.

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 on to his white golf cart.

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The Pope acknowledged Venice's "enchanting beauty" in his homily at a mass before about 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 charge last week for day-trippers during peak travel periods in an effort to thin the crowds.

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 pope has repeatedly called 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.

He also addressed a group of young Venetians, 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.