About the Paris Notre Dame Cathedral

June 13, 2019

Note: This commentary was written after fire destroyed the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris but before the news of the 21 April 2019 bombings of three churches in the cities of Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa in Sri Lanka.

The destruction of the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris by fire was difficult to witness even in the media. Many sources are describing the incredible tragedy as one that has united people around the world in their disbelief and mourning. 

As a liturgical design consultant for fifty years I have helped Jewish and Christian congregations build and renovate their houses of worship. These are holy places that serve as cradles of faith filled memories and yearnings for happiness. They are metaphors for the religious traditions and life giving narratives they were built to house. They are settings for the worship rites of living congregations. They are testimonies to the sacrifices of founding generations. They are designed to transform people in ways that make us better human beings who care for one another and the earth.

What is surprising to this writer is precisely the emergence of the collective global interest in this venerable Gothic giant. It strikes me as so ironic that, when most research centers are documenting the astonishing exodus from mainline religions in the European Union, The Netherlands, Scandinavia and North America, people are moved to tears about a Christian building struck by tragedy. Could it mean that people are hungry for something, anything that provides a glimpse of beauty, truth and goodness in an age fueled by hate rhetoric, a time that lacks moral moorings? Is the collective reaction connected to a search for a simple uncluttered, almost mystical, spirituality that mainstream churches seem afraid of embracing and teaching?

What is actually incomprehensible is the strong desire to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral to replicate the way it looked before the fire. Aside from the lack of trades familiar with Medieval construction techniques, the advancement of building technologies and current codes will have to be employed in any restoration project. 

Cathedrals are not museums that thrive on tourism. They are living stones that support the memories, needs and visions of a loyal congregation determined to take their social action into the streets. This could be an opportunity to create a Cathedral that is not merely a reliquary to a bygone period of secular and ecclesial history but a vision of what tomorrow could look like. 

This could be a time to introduce artistic and architectural elements into the Cathedral that celebrate all faith traditions and address the social concerns of humanity. This could even be a time for the Cathedral to serve as a model for other churches in honoring the liturgical renewal set in place a half century ago by the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council.

It is also astounding to read that money is pouring in from everywhere on earth for the rebuilding of this French national treasure. A few years ago I was on a jury to select architectural plans for a new cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption was destroyed in the 12 January 2010 earthquake. Built between 1884 and 1914 it will cost approximately 50 million dollars (USD) to rebuild. The money has not yet been raised and a temporary cathedral was erected to serve the Catholic community there. Why was there no global effort to rebuild this Notre Dame Cathedral located in one of the poorest countries in the world? 

Notre Dame Haiti

Furthermore, where was the global public outcry and the financial support for the Coptic churches in Cairo destroyed by terrorist groups? Where was the moral outrage over the three churches burned to the ground by extremists in the United States? Who continues to grieve over the destruction of the churches, synagogues and mosques in Iraq? Who is willing to make monetary contributions to organizations helping people who live on the fringes of society especially along our borders? Those persons long for the biblical justice preached from pulpits in places like the Notre Dame Cathedral whether in France or Haiti or the United States.

The fiery destruction of the Cathedral in Paris has raised a most interesting cultural awareness about the important place of religious buildings in our communities. Rebuilding the Cathedral is an opportunity to honor and balance memories with imagination. It is also an opportunity to wonder about the equitable distribution of resources that feed our spiritual and physical needs.


When Is Sacred Not Sacred?

June 13, 2019

Note: This article first appeared in the journal Faith & Form Vol. 52, No. 1, 2019

After the anti-Semitic massacre of worshipers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, the editorial in The New York Times raised this question, “Can’t we be safe in our homes, in our schools, in our most sacred places?” Seeing the word “sacred” in that newspaper I became hesitant about writing this column. I have, for a long time, referred to our places of worship as sacred. I continue to work as a sacred space consultant for Jewish and Christian congregations. Lately, however, I have begun to wonder if the pervasive employment of the word sacred has diminished its power and significance? In a religious context it is a commonly used adjective to describe sacred space, art, texts, music, traditions, and rituals. In some cultures animals, plants, trees, mountains, rivers, deserts and valleys are sacred. For many, human life, the environment, and the cosmos are sanctified and venerated as such.  

How does something or someone get to be sacred? Are they sacred just because we say so? Or, do they have to earn the label? These are perplexing questions for me. The word is derived from the Latin “sacrare” to set aside or to make holy. Rituals of dedication or consecration are often used to identify a place or a person as sacred. I argue that is not enough. Most often, we speak or write the word to describe what is believed to be sacred based on preconceptions, without qualification or further thought. 

Let us consider a tranquil sandy beach. Like a mountain or a forest it is a natural wonder and does not really want to be anything else. Still, the beach has the innate potential to reshape identities as well as popular perceptions of what a beach is. For example, if two persons fall in love on the beach that space will never again be ordinary for them. It becomes an acute space because of the metamorphosis they experienced there. In this sense the meaning of the beach and the couple was altered. As a tragic counterpoint, one could demonstrate how a beachfront and nearby inhabitants are changed after a devastating tsunami or hurricane. No one would say that event is sacred although some might call it an “act of God.”

What about a built environment such as a temple, mosque, or church? The most any designer or architect can do is create a place of worship that has the potential to become sacred. But that is still not enough. Like the ordinary beach a house of prayer, regardless of its architectural and artistic features, is just a building until its users, like the lovers walking on the beach, have a transformative experience in it. In some faith traditions a place of worship is, ideally, where people undergo a radical change. Such an experience would reclassify the people and the building as sacred. The Christian writer John Chrysostom wrote, it is not the building that makes the people holy. It is the people who enter the church who make the place holy. 

When is sacred not sacred? I submit that texts, songs, rituals, traditions, works of art and architecture become sacred only when they alter the lives of people. Not before. Of course not every building has that power and not every person seeks change. The hallowed halls of mosques, synagogues and churches where ruthless murders have occurred become sacred grounds not only because innocent people have died there but because they are memorials that remind us to transform a world ruptured by injustice.

Catholic Cathedrals As “Seers”

November 21, 2010


The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY was rededicated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, D.D., on Sunday, November 21, 2010. The event provided our Diocese with an opportunity to focus on the meaning of a cathedral in the 21st century. This  article was the last ina series of three written for the parishes and institutions of the Diocese of Albany.

Some decades ago a religious building in downtown St. Louis, Missouri was becoming a victim of urban gentrification. The Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral was not only deteriorating it was losing members because of the socio-cultural changes in the neighborhood. Edwin Lynn described that Cathedral in the title of his book as a Tired Dragon. However, rather than sell and move to the suburbs the Cathedral board decided to stay put, energize the people and invest in the building.

That Cathedral congregation began to imagine the possibilities for the future. It realized it needed a new vision to survive. First, the Cathedral building itself was stabilized and restored, a project that attracted new members. The enhanced and flexible interior made it possible to celebrate liturgies in diverse ways. Along with its many programs, the Cathedral building became a prominent voice in the public square. It was envisioned that the Cathedral could be a place not only for congregational gatherings but also a place for neighborhood meetings, a center for interfaith events and ecumenical discourse.

In many ways the cathedrals of yesteryear were places of imagination — where liturgy, architecture, music and all the arts could flourish; where civic problems could be addressed; where downtrodden people could imagine living anew; where scientists and theologians could wrestle with spiritual and ethical issues and where religion could take its rightful place in the political forum.

Our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with its refurbished interior and its proximity to civic, artistic, medical and university centers has the potential to join hands with many allies addressing issues that pertain to the quality of life. Although our Cathedral still requires more work it can be a model for parishes and institutions in our Diocese working together to experience an amazing God.

Catholic Cathedrals As “Servants”

November 21, 2010


The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY was rededicated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, D.D., on Sunday, November 21, 2010. The event provided our Diocese with an opportunity to focus on the meaning of a cathedral in the 21st century. This  article was the second of three written for the parishes and institutions of the Diocese of Albany.

Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries in France tons of stone were quarried for the building of some 80 cathedrals according to Jean Gimpel in his book The Cathedral Builders. These giant edifices were constructed as examples of the powerful presence of the Catholic religion in pre-Reformation times. Funded by wealthy patrons, built by guilds and staffed by religious personnel these cathedrals served as the centers of civilization. In some areas they were so big the entire population of the town could gather inside.

The cathedral of yesteryear was a busy, multi-tasking servant. Many diverse activities took place within its hallowed walls. The primary event of course was prayer. The Eucharist and other sacraments along with the Divine Office were celebrated with the townspeople. Often built like fortresses, the building provided shelter and security especially when the village was raided by bands of outlaws or even large armies. The cathedral was also a hospital where people could be treated for various illnesses. They were packed during plagues. Festivals of crafts, music, drama and food were also held inside and outside these large halls.

Similarly, Cathedrals in the United States continue the tradition of serving the population living in the shadows of their spires, the daily visitors who work nearby and the pilgrims who journey from afar. Along with a vibrant liturgical life many of these modern day servants sponsor education programs, concerts and art exhibits. Outreach programs like food pantries, soup kitchens, counseling services and second hand clothing stores are often housed in the cathedral itself or a nearby facility.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is in an ideal location in downtown Albany, New York. There it can serve not only its parishioners but also other people seeking day to day sustenance and spiritual nourishment. New life has been breathed into our Cathedral building. Now, new life can be breathed into all the people it serves.

Catholic Cathedrals as “Symbols”

November 21, 2010


The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY was rededicated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, D.D., on Sunday, November 21, 2010. The event provided our Diocese with an opportunity to focus on the meaning of a cathedral in the 21st century. This  article was the first of three written for the parishes and institutions of the Diocese of Albany.

Did you know that the Pope’s cathedral is not St. Peter’s Basilica but the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome? This building, once a palace owned by the Laterani family, was consecrated in the year 324 CE and has served as the location of the official chair of the pope ever since. The word cathedral is taken from the Latin word cathedra, which is translated as “chair.” There is a cathedral in every Catholic diocese throughout the world. Because of the“chair” each cathedral is a symbol of the unity between the local diocese and the leader of the global Catholic Church. The chair is also a symbol of the local bishop’s ministry as a teacher and pastor. Bishops preside from the cathedra during all liturgies and when they make statements affecting the life of the diocese entrusted to them.

Further, according to The Ceremonial of Bishops, the local cathedral “is a symbol of the spiritual temple that is built up in souls and is resplendent with the glory of divine grace.” (Ceremonial No. 43.) What does it mean for us, the members of this Diocese, to understand our Cathedral as a symbol of who we are? In scripture we read that we are the living stones that build up the spiritual temple on earth (1 Peter 2). In doing so we advance the kingdom of God already here on earth even though it is incomplete.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a symbol of the people of God, all the members of the Diocese of Albany. Every baptized person is, in some way, spiritually connected to the Cathedral. Spiritual temples, however, are empty if they are not places where the work of God is evident.

The symbolic and real identity of a Cathedral is energized when all members of a Diocese participate together in the work of Jesus Christ. Even though our Cathedral is far away from many parishes in this Diocese, it stands as powerful reminder of the calling each of us has received from God to put our faith into action.