The church in ruins

It was heartbreaking to see Notre Dame, amongst Western Catholicism’s most iconic Cathedrals, gutted by flame on our television screens yesterday evening. It made me weep. This catastrophe represents a genuine loss of the world’s cultural and historic heritage. For authentic Christians it is even worse. It represents the loss of our religious heritage too. How awful to think of this magnificent window, for example, which survived for over 800 years, exploding under the intense and indiscriminate heat of the flames. UPDATE: Praise God- this window survived. Though others did not.

Some people took me to task on social media for stating that this fire seemed a portentous omen. A terrible sign of our times. A wake up call to a Western world that has all but abandoned Christ and the faith; to a brave new world that no longer subscribes to the culture and civilisation that inspired this architectural gem. I stand by my words in spite of such criticism. The image of this magnificent Cathedral, gutted of her interior beauty, and now standing as an empty shell of her former self, still strikes me as deeply symbolic of what has happened to Christianity, within the church and without, in recent decades.

I was also criticised for stating that, whilst we cannot know the cause of the fire at this stage, it is nevertheless not an isolated incident. Because the damage to the Christian heritage of France has been widespread and devastating since the turn of the year. The mainstream media have not felt inclined to report on it much but several churches have been burned and desecrated across France by those hostile to the faith.

In March St. Suplice in Paris was damaged by fire due to arson. In February the main crucifix in Notre Dame des Enfants in Nimes was smeared in human excrement and the tabernacle forced open that the sacrament might be thrown into a stinking rubbish heap. That same month St. Alain in Lavaur was damaged by arson along with around 20 other churches across France. Elswhere statues were smashed and tabernacles damaged that the blessed Sacrament might be desecrated. Every one of this lamentable cases of vandalism has struck at the very heart of Catholicism in France.

Against this backdrop it seems fair to wonder if this latest fire might be another assault? I hope not. There is every chance it was an accident. The truth may emerge if not covered up. But what cannot be denied, as we reflect on yet another house of worship damaged in France, is that the increasing hostility and scorn being shown to Christians at present is real. Meaning we are at risk of losing more than some historic buildings, the entire culture and heritage of the West is at stake via a systematic destruction of the Judea-Christian philosophy that inspired her. The culture war is real and the loss of Notre Dame is another blow to the Christian cause.

Please God this fire will give the enemies of the church pause for reflection. Please God people will begin to better value our religious and cultural heritage and recognise the value and contribution to civilised society by the church. Please God it brings about a change of tone against the very lopsided and unfair impression given of late that Catholics are always the bad guys. The truth is that there is so much apathy towards Christian suffering at present and also much hatred and hostility. How can we inspire a more authentic inclusivity in society that manages to care for and respect the Christian too?

Disaster often brings forth unexpected positivity. And it is good news that President Macron has promised reconstruction of Notre Dame will occur and that a French billionaire has already pledged 100 million Euros to the cause. My only fear is that this work will not prove sympathetic to the original vision, a fear fulled by the fact that Macron stated the refurbishment will represent ‘modern values’- which, if these reflect the secular realm and its current agenda, strikes me as odd and unfitting within an historic Christian structure. Time will tell. Will we see something modernist and brutalist emerge? Or a sympathetic rebuilding in the style and vision of what went before and gave us this stunning Cathedral to being with? And I am not only speaking about buildings.

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1 thought on “The church in ruins

  1. My Easter greetings to you, Father Ed, and to all those who read your blog.

    I agree with you that the Notre Dame fire was a heartbreaking tragedy. And of course it lends itself to symbolic interpretations, for example “the Church in ruins” (the title of your blog post) and “Notre Dame needs to be rebuilt but so does the Catholic Church” (an IrishCentral headline). But I do think there is a risk of over-interpreting the event. After all, devastating fires related to the refurbishment of large buildings are by no means uncommon – just think of Grenfell Tower and the Glasgow School of Art.

    It seems to me that since the Notre Dame fire three areas of dispute have opened up, and I predict that the arguments will run and run.

    The first area of dispute concerns the conflict between on the one hand Notre Dame’s position as part of “the world’s cultural and historic heritage” (to use your words) and on the other hand its role as a place of worship for the tiny minority (less than 2%, I think) of French people who still attend Mass. I only once went to Mass in Notre Dame de Paris, back in the 1970s, and it was the most unpleasant liturgical experience I can recall. Those of us who were seeking to worship God were sort of ‘kettled’ in a central area of the church while the tourists, the worshippers of “cultural and historic heritage”, milled around us, chatting away to each other just as if they were in the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum. So how will these two ‘functions’ of the cathedral be reconciled in any rebuilding?

    The second area of dispute concerns money. Would the billion plus euros needed for the rebuild not be better spent on the many poor people in France? And is it not shocking how quickly some of the ultra-rich came forward to offer money for Notre Dame but not for the poor people bereaved and displaced by Grenfell Tower? Actually there need be no argument about money. It is a demonstrable fact that there is plenty of money in the world, more than enough to maintain and renovate historic religious buildings as well as to ensure that the poorest in our society can afford to live decent lives. As you wrote, Father Ed, in your post-Grenfell post on 17 June 2017 “There is simply too much wealth disparity between rich and poor.” That is the problem.

    The third are of dispute concerns whether the cathedral should be rebuilt to be exactly as it was before the fire, or whether the opportunity should be taken for some redesign (e.g. a 21st century spire rather than a 19th century spire) perhaps related to a revised vision of the building’s purpose.. I predict that very strong views will be expressed about this by some traditional Catholics. It seems to me that many of those who identify as traditional Catholics have a “better before” mindset. Things were better before Pope Francis, better before Vatican 2, better before the ‘scourge of modernism’, better before the 18th century enlightenment, better before the reformation, better before the great schism of 1054. I sometimes wonder, and I hope this does not sound unkind, if traditionalists are more motivated by a psychological aversion to the contemporary world than by any theological consideration. It seems likely that some traditionalists will resist any proposals to redesign Notre Dame.

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