The Sistine Chapel with the Creation Story and the Last Judgment by Michelangelo as well as the world-renowned Rafael Rooms are often referenced when speaking about the Vatican Museums. Some people might make mention of the early Christian collections with the famous Good Shepherd and numerous Christian Sarcophagi. Others will remark about the amazing collection of modern and contemporary sacred art started by Saint Pope Paul VI. But who would expect to find a vast collection of indigenous art and artifacts from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania in the Vatican Museums?
In 1925, Pope Pius XI organized a major exposition of art and artifacts that reflected the artistic, cultural and spiritual traditions of the different peoples of the world. Of the 100,000 objects that were sent for the exhibition some 40,000 were given to the pope and remained in the Vatican collections after the exhibition. This was the beginning of what was then known as the Vatican’s Ethological Museum.
A few years ago, Pope Francis renamed this museum and gave it the title of Anima Mundi or Soul of the World. At the same time he asked that this museum be completely re-imagined and be given a much more prominent place among the different collections in the Vatican Museums.
During the opening of the partially completed Anima Mundi Museum in October of 2019 Pope Francis commented on the transparency of this new museum. All walls and exhibition cases within the Anima Mundi Museum are made out of highly transparent glass which allows the visitor to experience art from one continent while seeing art from all the other continents. Pope Francis said: “In these showcases, over the course of time, thousands of works coming from every part of the world will find space, and this kind of installation is meant to place them effectively in dialogue among themselves. And as works of art are the expression of the spirit of peoples, the message received is that one needs to always look at every culture, at the other, with openness of spirit and with benevolence.”
On October 7, I was able to visit the Anima Mundi Museum with Fr. Nicola Mapelli who is the director of this museum. He spoke about the objects in the transparent cases as ambassadors of the different cultures in our wonderfully diverse world. I was very moved by the deep longings; the fears and hopes; the joys and sorrows all of us share as they are expressed in these many objects, no matter where and when they were made. We are so very different from one another, and yet we are so very much the same.
The following Wednesday, during his weekly audience Pope Francis spoke about the relationship between Christian freedom and our diverse cultures during his meditation on the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians. He was clear to state that welcoming the Christian faith does not “involve renouncing the heart of cultures and traditions, but only that which may hinder the newness and purity of the Gospel.”
True Christian freedom, the Pope said, enables us “to acquire the full dignity of the children of God,” while allowing us to remain anchored in our own cultural heritage and at the same time being open to what is good and true in every culture.
The Pope deeply lamented the “many errors” that have occurred in the history of evangelization “by seeking to impose a single cultural model.” These errors, he said, have deprived the Church of “the richness of many local expressions that the cultural traditions of entire peoples bring with them.”
It was not lost on me that my visit to the Anima Mundi Museum and Pope Francis’ meditations fell on either side of October 11, a day known by some as Columbus Day and by others as Indigenous People’s Day.
As we move forward toward a world and a Church that is more inclusive, diverse, and equitable let us take an honest look at our past, let us be transparent about our present and let us courageously march toward the future, embracing the open and respectful dialogue so needed for the well-being of our world, our church, our community and ourselves.