After visiting several Churches in France, including Notre Dame, Mark Steyn was struck by their emptiness: “One gets the sense that a living, breathing faith is just becoming, actually, a museum, an art gallery, a storage facility.” The cathedrals of Europe are truly magnificent and awe-inspiring, but the awe is for achievements that we no longer seem capable of because we lack the requisite faith.The truth is that Notre Dame today has evolved as a building for good and for ill. It was a wreck for a time, used for a time as a market, and has been rebuilt and adapted many times before the fire. When it was used by Napoleon for his coronation, it was said the service had to be cut short because of the stench of rotting food and animal waste was overwhelming. Some today commented on how fitting it was that the vault fell on top of the terrible Vatican II altar placed at the apse and their hope that this structure could not be replaced and certainly not within 5 years (when Paris will hold an Olympics and welcome many tourists). Could we be in danger of resorting a building's form apart from its function?
Buildings are wonderful things and to all our ability we who inhabit them are shaped by them even as we shape them. When it comes to their use in the Church, these buildings have an even higher calling to express both the beauty and mystery of the Divine and to give good shape to the space whose primary purpose is the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. Yet no beauty remains when the building becomes a historical relic to something that was but is no more. There is no nobility left when its space becomes a hallmark of national identity devoid of its sacred identity as a house of prayer. There is tragedy greater than the value of all it holds when it becomes a museum or gallery and it ceases to live and breathe with the Spirit and heartbeat of faith.
Yes, buildings are symbols but they are relics unless what they symbolize lives within their walls. Yes, buildings are treasures but when they treasure something surrendered to unbelief by the majority of those around her, their treasure tarnishes. Yes, buildings are examples but when they become tourist sites more than houses of prayer they are no different than ancient spaces once sacred but now thoroughly secular. Yes, buildings are achievements but when they speak more to the men who built them than they do the purpose for which they were constructed, their spires no longer point to God.
Let me be clear, I am not opposed to restoring Notre Dame and hope that it will happen. But more than this, I long for the restoration of orthodox Christianity to Europe. Where Lutherans are strong or a minuscule minority, where Roman Catholics are vibrant or a faded memory, Europe begs to be seen as a mission field for a culture and a people who once knew God but have now found Him optional at best and foolish at worst. If Notre Dame is rebuilt, let this structure be restored as the cornerstone of a renewal movement designed to do nothing less than bring back the faith as well.
Pretty incredible cell phone footage from inside #NotreDameCathedral today pic.twitter.com/CHSeBxer2v— Pablo Kay (@pablo_kay) April 16, 2019