“The Church is at the service of the Gospel, and the Gospel is the most humanising message known to history,” argues Pope Francis in a video message to UNESCO on its seventy-fifth anniversary back in 2021. At the heart of the partnership between the UNESCO and the Holy See is “the common service to peace and solidarity among peoples, to the integral development of the human person and to the protection of the cultural heritage of humanity,” the Pope concluded.
This is not the only time that Pope Francis has spoken about the importance of acknowledging our relationship with history, spirituality and traditions proper to our communities and in practice with our charisms. The emphasis should not be on the burden of preservation as such, but on the opportunity to renew, to rethink one’s vocation and to recompose it in the current socio-cultural context and to dream for a better future.
Though he did not mention the phrase “cultural heritage” during his Apostolic Journey to Malta, Pope Francis did talk of “cultural heritage” at least three times while visiting us. In his meeting with the authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps, Pope Francis mentioned our national anthem to remind us of the importance of working together and of strengthening the shared roots and virtues that have forged Maltese society in its uniqueness.
Pope Francis talked of roots once again when addressing the young people of Malta during the Angelus. The Pope sensed that “[T]hese islands breathe a sense of the People of God,” and whether we see that or not, he still encouraged us to continue to do so, “mindful that faith grows in joy and is strengthened in giving.” Our personal and collective histories are testament to the joy of giving oneself completely in love, and that is freedom.
If the aims are joy and freedom, then our history, spirituality and tradition unite us with the rest of humanity. In the meeting with migrants, Pope Francis echoed the dream in the hearts of those forced to leave their country, “the dream of freedom and democracy;” in doing so, he encouraged us to light “fires of fraternity around which people can warm themselves, rise again and rediscover hope.” Only then can we talk about a culture of encounter and a heritage that is communal.
Where does this leave us? We are left with an invitation, which we are free to either accept or reject: in a society fraught with individualism and relativism, are we willing to be truly attuned to the Lord? For this means cultivating the truth of the heart, which makes us to see others as they truly are and to recognise our desperate need of salvation. On the Granaries, Pope Francis also recalled St Augustine in saying that “[M]ercy and misery met there” in the persons of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus respectively. We cannot save ourselves alone, and we certainly cannot save our cultural heritage if we divest it of our collective soul.