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Restoring Our Lady

EJ Dickson at Rolling Stone magazine has published an article entitled “How Should France Rebuild Notre Dame?” The tweet sent out by Rolling Stone to promote the article includes a quote from Harvard architecture historian Patricio del Real who said:

The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation.

The tweet and its quote is certainly inflammatory, which is precisely why it was used in their tweet as it caused the article to get more views and shares than it would have otherwise. It also caused a lot of pushback on Twitter, due to the implication that the burning of a church is a liberating experience (I’m sure that I can count on some commentators here to come along shortly to assure me that it is liberating). The actual article itself, however, is more thoughtful, and deserves a read.

Dickson discusses the fact that some people see Notre Dame as representing the “old city” in opposition to the “modern city” represented by the Eiffel Tower (which is ironic in itself since the Eiffel Tower was hated when it was first constructed). The question that dichotomy raises, then, is should the cathedral be rebuilt as it was or as the people of today think it should be rebuilt? Compounding the issue, as Dickson also points out, is that the cathedral was rebuilt a number of times throughout its 800 year history and that the spire, Western facade, and other elements weren’t added until the 19th century. Dickson likes to use variations of “never was” or “never existed in the first place” to raise the issue of how exactly one would “restore” the building; i.e. to which era should it be restored? Or, should it be transformed into something new? This is where most of the angst over the article and the potential future of Notre Dame comes into play; many fear that it will be refashioned into some sort of monument to the secular state.

A few things are worth keeping in mind.

First, the building is owned by the French state due to a 1905 law which, paradoxically perhaps, established France as a secular state; that is, the same law which separated Church and state also gave the state ownership of many church structures. At the time, the law was seen as an anti-Catholic move (there were other anti-Catholic provisions in the law beyond the issue of buildings), with some rapprochement between the state and Church occurring in the 1920s and later.

Second, although the building is owned by the state, the Catholic Church has the sole right to use the building forever and is responsible for conducting services there, paying clergy, operating it, etc… So, Notre Dame is an interesting meeting of state and Church interests. The state tends to view it as a symbol of France (which is the thrust of the Rolling Stone article), while the Church views it as much more.

Indeed, Notre Dame is a cathedral, which means it is the chair (cathedra) or seat of a bishop. It was built in honor of “Our Lady,” the Virgin Mary, and consecrated to her. It is used in the liturgical life of the Church, and its wondrous art is meant to glorify God. Its beauty is a witness to the faith of those who worked and strove to create it in honor of their own Creator (fellow Resurgent contributor Jess Fields has an excellent article concerning this here).

So, how should it be rebuilt?

I think that the proper frame of reference is not whether it should become a state monument or whether it should be restored to as it was at some point in history (up to the day of the fire). Rather, perhaps the better question is how best it can be restored to serve the ecclesial function, witness to God, and consecration which it has had since construction began nearly 900 years ago. For despite the changes in the building over the centuries, it has continued to serve as a place where God’s people gather to worship Him where He is present, and as a place whose very existence serves as a witness to non-believers of this God and to those who love Him so much that they would expend their labor to create beautiful works of art and architecture to honor Him. As a testament to this witnessing function, most of the interior of the cathedral, the cross, and the altar were miraculously preserved from destruction.

The French state itself has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times during the time that Notre Dame has stood upon the banks of the Seine, and – God assures us – the Church herself will still be standing when all earthly powers are gone.

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