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.