On the plane back from Romania, Pope Francis responded to a question about Pope Benedict, who, he said, he thought of as a wise old grandfather. He then spoke about the nature of tradition:
Speaking of tradition, [the composer Mahler] said that tradition is the guarantee of the future and not the keeper of ashes. It is not a museum. Tradition does not preserve ashes; the nostalgia of fundamentalists [is] to return to the ashes. No, tradition is the roots that guarantee the tree grows, flowers and gives fruit.
Pope Francis is here freely combining two images: Mahler’s, and one of his own, of tradition as a root or source for what we do. In Evangelii Gaudium he expressed it slightly differently, in relation to evangelization:
Nor should we see the newness of this mission as entailing a kind of displacement or forgetfulness of the living history which surrounds us and carries us forward.
Tradition, memory, history, give energy to even the perpetually new enterprise of evangelization.
Mahler’s dictum says something similar. The original German is “Tradition ist nicht die Anbetung der Asche, sondern die Weitergabe des Feuers”: that is, tradition is not the worship of ash, but the passing on of flames.