We pray for Notre Dame in Paris, what a great loss.

SSMN Reflect on this great loss.

April 30, 2019

Out of the ashes rises imagination


by Nancy Sylvester

It is hard for me to stop seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral in flames. This magnificent work of human imagination and skill is the icon of the worldview and religious belief system that has shaped so many of us.

Like the separation of Earth from heaven and hell, the sacred and secular needed to be kept separate. The cathedral was to be a taste of heaven, a mediating space between God and humans. In the mid-1960s when I first visited Notre Dame, I remember feeling awe as I turned my head upwards and took in the incredible heights and felt the transcendence of God. The deep silence that encompassed me as I entered brought me to prayer. The stained glass windows allowed the light to shine through the darkness reminding me of how God is present in this space.

Cathedrals embodied the religious imagination of the time, and when I visited Notre Dame it fed what was then my very personal “God and me” piety.

The Gothic cathedrals were central to the life of the people, the peasants, who found security, hope, and forgiveness within the walls of their churches. Cathedrals represented the values, the worldview and the belief systems that evolved over hundreds of years.

The cathedrals represented the space where God became present — mediated by the clergy through the sacraments. The clergy were the teachers of the faith, using stained glass windows and other iconography to tell salvation history. The architecture made order and geometric design a priority as well as conveying a sense of stability and permanence.

Notre Dame embodied these beliefs, but as with all structures over time, modifications occurred. Sometimes they strengthen the original design and sometimes they do not. It struck me as significant that what was destroyed — spire — was an addition over the centuries. The original base of the structure had withstood the fire and remained intact.

That began me thinking.

The dominant worldview and belief systems during the Middle Ages still exist, together with a variety of changes and developments in our religious and secular beliefs. We know that since the modern era the separation between world views rooted in religious beliefs and those emerging out of the discoveries of science have been at odds with each other. In an attempt to reconcile these differences, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council began a dialogue between the church and the world, but many in the official church resisted. One might say such resistance was simply adding on additions like the spire to the original base. Rather than seeing the original teachings of Jesus from a new vantage point, they added more of what they knew. This resistance has contributed to our present situation: Many people no longer go to church even while they search for a meaningful spirituality.

Another aspect of the more traditional worldview was the very special role for the clergy. By the Middle Ages, the church hierarchy resembled the existing monarchial structure. Within the cathedral some spaces were more sacred than others, where only the clergy or members of the monarchy were allowed to go. There were various designated roles within the priesthood that increased one’s importance and privilege. Church rituals increased the unique role for the ordained clergy. Priests were obeyed without question and were looked upon as the representative of God by many of the faithful. The clerical system became more closed and out of touch with the changes in our world. Those additions to the clerical system have contributed to the current scandals in the church. Those additions — like the spire — are susceptible to fires as they, too, are not part of the base and distort the original Gospel vision.

As I listened to President Macron say that the cathedral would be rebuilt, I found myself wondering: What would happen if Notre Dame wasn’t just rebuilt but rather reimagined?

How could what replaces what has been destroyed be as magnificent in design and speak to our contemporary spiritual understandings?

How would we build a cathedral today?

How would we embody an understanding of faith that deepens the Vatican II theology and its subsequent developments that we are in the world and not separate?

How would we construct our sacred space to integrate the cosmology that speaks to an unfinished and evolving Universe rather than an unchanging and fixed one and which honors the role of human consciousness?

How would we create the space in ways that acknowledge the equality of persons in all our diversity?

How would we convey the holiness of all of creation and our responsibility for the health of the planet?

How would we symbolize the intimacy of God as well as the transcendence and the various ways we access and experience the Divine?

How would the cathedral incarnate the Christ toward which all is evolving?

As I wondered, I realized my religious imagination needs a bit of work. The worldview and belief system that Notre Dame embodied had been imagined and shared for over a thousand years, through symbols, art, music, devotional prayers and rituals.

Vatican II occurred in the mid-20th century. We are just at the beginning of releasing our religious imagination. We need to embody our new understandings and interpretations of our faith using all of our senses and affectivity. We so need symbols, art, music, poetry, prayers and stories so we can embrace the intimacy and the grandeur of our faith within an emerging worldview.

Perhaps the gift from the ashes of Notre Dame is the release of our religious imagination so as to create over the next centuries as beautiful an icon for our future as Notre Dame has been for us during these past centuries.

[Nancy Sylvester is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]


April 16, 2019

A Prayer for Notre Dame in Paris

Lord, at times such as this, we plead for your mercy. As the grandest of our churches crumbles about us, in this our holiest of weeks, we know too well how small we truly are on this fragile planet we call home. Today, so many people are devastated. They roam the streets in shock at what they see, and they keep vigil amid the ruins. Yet you have promised never to forget us. Do not forget us now. Comfort the Church of Paris, Lord, in this disaster. Pierce, too, our hearts with compassion, we who watch from afar. Stay with us in our sorrow, and help us to trust in your Son’s resurrection. And once the images of destruction have stopped filling the news, let us not forget that in Christ we are all the children of Our Lady. For though the mountains leave their place and the hills be tossed to the ground, your love shall never leave us, and your promise of peace will never be shaken. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Blessed be the name of the Lord, now and forever. Amen.


Une Prière pour Notre Dame en Paris

Seigneur, dans des situations comme celle-ci, nous implorons ta miséricorde. Alors que la plus magnifique de nos églises s’écroule autour de nous, dans cette semaines la plus sainte, nous savons à quel point nous sommes petits sur cette planète fragile que nous disons chez nous. Aujourd’hui, tant de gens sont dévastées. Ils parcourent les rues sous le choc de ce qu’ils voient, et ils veillent au milieu des ruines. Pourtant tu as promis de ne jamais nous oublier. Ne nous oublie pas maintenant. Réconforte l’Église de Paris, Seigneur, face à ce désastre. Perce de compassion nos cœurs aussi, nous qui observons au loin. Reste avec nous dans notre douleur, et aide-nous à avoir confiance en la résurrection de ton Fils. Et quand le les images de destruction auront cessé de meubler les nouvelles, n’oublions pas qu’en Christ nous sommes tous les enfants de Notre Dame. Car même si les montagnes quittent leur place et que les collines soient trainées au sol, ton amour ne nous quittera jamais, et ta promesse de la paix ne sera jamais ébranlée. Notre aide est dans le nom du Seigneur, qui a fait le ciel et la terre. Béni soit le nom du Seigneur, maintenant et à jamais. Amen.


April 16, 2019

Notre Dame: May lamentations lead to alleluias, by Michael Sean Winters

This year, Tenebrae came early. At the medieval service, celebrated on the Wednesday of Holy Week and serving as a vigil to the Triduum, Jeremiah’s lamentations are sung. The lamentations are cries from the heart, bemoaning the evil that has come upon God’s people of Israel with the destruction of the temple and their exile in Babylon.

As the service progresses, and the sorrowful tones are accumulated, the candles on the hearse are extinguished one by one until the church is left in darkness, the congregation throws down its hymnals to mimic the sound of a thunder clap and all depart in silence.

Yesterday, watching flames engulf Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, it felt like Tenebrae. Lamentations over the destruction of this magnificent temple of devotion to the Mother of God were as heartfelt as they were appropriate. As the flames leapt higher and higher, it seemed like a darkness was descending upon the spirit of all who have worshiped within the walls of the cathedral at the heart of Paris. After the ancient roof had come crashing down to the floor, like a clap of evil thunder, silence and sorrow seemed the only thing anyone could manage.

There are those who will criticize such emotion being shown for a pile — even a noble pile — of stone when human beings the world over are suffering. But that misunderstands what a cathedral is, especially an old and venerable cathedral like Notre Dame. It is not mere stone, but the house in which the living stones of the people of God have prayed through the centuries, beseeching their Lord and His Mother for succor and salvation. The statue of the Blessed Mother that stood to the right of the altar — people seeking relief from the Great Plague prayed before that statue. People beset by famine and other hardships have lit candles in this cavernous space. The guns of several wars could be heard by the priests who stood at the altar, leading the people of Paris in prayer. In 2015, a congregation of national and city leaders gathered to pray for the victims of the terrorist attacks within Paris as Olivier Latry did the unthinkable, playing an improvisation on the tune of “La Marseillaise” at the offertory on the great Cavaille-Coll organ. That organ is no more, one of many cultural treasures that did not survive the flames and smoke.

The arches of the cathedral in Amiens are far higher than those of the cathedral in Paris. The stained glass windows of the cathedral in Chartres are more magnificent. The cathedral in Reims rivals that of the gothic masterpiece along the Seine in terms of history. But, there is something about Notre Dame de Paris, something that reverberates with the spirit of Catholic France. Those other cathedrals are also dedicated to the Mother of God but when one speaks of “Notre Dame” without designating the city, it is understood you are speaking about the cathedral in Paris. It is the very heart of the city that is the heart of France. The devotion of France, the eldest daughter of the church, to the Blessed Mother is nowhere more tangible, nowhere more laden in history. How many pilgrims have lit a candle and sought refuge in the mantle of Mary here? That thought, too, is why we owe no one an apology for our tears.

Notre Dame’s great flying buttresses, when seen from the ground, look like God’s own oars rowing the great ecclesial ship through the rough waters of history. When you see them up close, they are massive marvels of masonry that serve a practical purpose, supporting the walls by transferring the weight of the roof. This permitted the architects to cut large holes in the walls where the stained glass windows were placed. The dark, wonderfully gloomy naves of the great Romanesque cathedral, like that in Santiago de Compostela or Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, gave way to the light and airy naves of the gothic era. The combination of solidity and beauty was powerful, such that even in our country, we have tended to build more of our great churches in the gothic revival style than any other. Thankfully, the buttresses of Notre Dame are still standing and with them, the walls.

No other cathedral has, to my knowledge, a finer location. The slow moving waters of the Seine stream by along the south side of Notre Dame. The park, now dedicated to the memory of St. Pope John XXIII, who presided at Mass at Notre Dame many times while serving as apostolic nuncio to France after World War II, is an enclave of quiet and greenery in the busy and noisy city. The square before the West Front, with its two towers immortalized by Victor Hugo and the fictional bell ringer Quasimodo, permits one to see the entire façade, its rows of statues, its three enormous doors, the great bell ringing the hour. Who can forget the leaders of Paris’ Jewish community and some of his relatives gathering in that square to recite the Kaddish over the body of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger before his Christian funeral inside? In light of the long history of anti-Semitism in France, and throughout Europe, it was a moment of singular profundity.

Paris was not leveled in World War II and so Notre Dame escaped destruction. When you go to the great churches of Germany, in the vestibule there is usually a photograph of what the building looked like in 1945. The Frauenkirche in Munich, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Hildesheim, the Berliner Dom, all were ruined by Allied bombing and have been rebuilt. Notre Dame will be rebuilt as well. It must.

“Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral,” wrote the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. And so, watching a cathedral burn is one of mankind’s sadder moments. The extinguished candles of Tenebrae, however, are relit at the Great Easter Vigil. The lamentations give way to alleluias, darkness to light, sadness to Easter joy. Through the centuries, the Christian faith has brought solace, especially to the poor and the bereft. A cathedral was the one architectural monument to which the poor had the same access as the powerful. The shock and sadness of watching Notre Dame burn will pass because the faith that built it once has not been extinguished, and the faithful will build it anew.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]


Notre Dame, long a symbol of Catholicism in Europe, becomes a picture of its collapse, by Thomas Reese by Religion News Service

As fire devastates the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, the building is as much a symbol of the recent history of the Catholic Church in Europe as it once was a symbol of the church’s power and cultural supremacy. The church had been in disrepair for decades. Calls for its restoration went mostly ignored until too late. Now that it is in ashes, people weep for its loss.

In recent decades, Notre Dame was more a tourist destination than a place of pilgrimage or a seat of Catholic potency. More people could tell you the story of its fictitious bell-ringing hunchback than of any one of its bishops. Inside, more selfies took place than prayers, and there were more art connoisseurs among its enthusiasts than worshipers.

This spiritual emptiness didn’t come overnight. The church in Europe has been the target of secularists and anticlericals for centuries — since long before the secularizing revolution that happened on its doorstep. Much of the criticism was richly deserved. The church’s hierarchy sided with the nobility against the forces of modernization in the 18th and 19th centuries. It opposed free press, free speech, and religious liberty.

By opposing political freedoms and unions in the 19th century, the church lost European men. In its opposition to feminism, it lost women at the end of the 20th century.

Only in the Eastern bloc countries, like Poland, where the church stood with the people against Communist oppression, did it flourish, but once freedom came, the Polish church, too, lost the people because of its clerical arrogance in trying to dictate public policy.

Those who engineered and cheered the destruction of clerical power and the influence of the church had little to put in its place. Libertarian capitalism exploited workers and consumers and destroyed the environment. The power of the media was used to create celebrities, sensationalize news and sell commodities. Democracy has given way to narrow-minded nationalism.

Pope Francis is a lone voice in Europe for the common good, respect for the stranger and values more important than the almighty dollar, but there is no institutional strength supporting his message. The church is a shell of what it once was.

Yes, let us weep for Notre Dame, but we have lost more than a building.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a columnist for Religion News Service and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.]
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