Notre Dame Cathedral has never been one of my favourite places. Strange, then, that I felt so sad when it caught fire and burned last month.
Perhaps my sadness resulted from my feeling that the cathedral had long since become something other than the church it was intended by its builders to be.
As a Catholic, perhaps I should have seen it as a symbol of Catholicism, but I never felt it was that. Instead, it inspired in me a sense of desolation and sadness, as well as spiritual lack.
Father Thomas Reese, SJ, who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, expresses a similar sentiment. In a recent article, he provides a little historical background to the spiritual emptiness of the Cathedral. He links the emptiness to that of the Catholic Church and its place in the world today. His article is well worth reading.
I’ve never been to Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. It felt creepy that Mass was celebrated in one of the crypts beneath the main church. Who, in the beautiful city of Paris, would want to pray under the ground, among the tombs of the long dead?
Views of Notre Dame Cathedral
The first time I saw the Cathedral, there was a bread festival, Fête du Pain, in full swing in the grounds. Tents and flags and advertisements which made no sense in the grounds of a church proliferated. They felt like desecration. My soaring spirits fell.
Inside tourists with their cameras and selfies over-ran the building which was constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries. There was no sense of the awe, wonder or pilgrimage I’d expected.
I took a couple of photos, missing the now-razed spire altogether. The next time, I was in Paris, scaffolding covered the building. I never bothered to go back to Notre Dame, although I often caught glimpses of the building from different vantage points in the beautiful city.
Other, proper ‘working’ churches appealed more. The sanctuary light that burned brightly in Sacré–Cœur Basilica made my heart sing.
The reverence and beauty of the liturgy in the Church of Saint Eustache meant that John and I returned often to Mass there. The choir delighted us with their singing and also, with the little children who clung to their parents, choir-members in their red gowns. French children seem to behave different from any kids I’ve ever known.
We found it accidently, and after that I think we even took the closeness of St Eustache (and our fondness for it) into account, before booking apartments nearby. Regular parishioners greeted us warmly, made us, such obvious, stand-out tourists, feel at home.
After the fire
Immediately after the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral, funds for its restoration began to flow. The President of France promised that the building would be rebuilt within five years. Facebook posts depicting the burnt-out building alongside starving children with outstretched in war-torn countries, went viral.
A month after the fire, a picture of how the restored building might look appeared in the West Australian Newspaper. French architect Vincent Callebaut has submitted a magnificent concept, with amazing environmental benefits, as one would expect from Callebaut.
They include solar panels to provide energy for the building and the surrounding neighbourhood, and passive heating and cooling. He suggests markets in the grounds to sell the produce from the orchard and gardens to be build on (and in) the roof.
But the spirit of Notre Dame Cathedral as a holy place?
As Fr Reese says, ‘Yes, let us weep for Notre Dame, but we have lost more than a building.’