Faith Matters

Notre-Dame: A beacon for the faithful and non-faithful alike

Work will begin soon on restoring Notre Dame; let us renew our faith too, says Diarmuid Pepper

Diarmuid Pepper

The Notre-Dame de Paris altar; the cathedral - one of the western world's architectural treasures - was engulfed in flames in a catastrophic fire last week. Picture by Philippe Wojazer/Pool via AP

TODAY, a little over a week after it was engulfed by flames, the Catholic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is a shadow of its former awe-inspiring glory.

As it burned last Monday, the famous spire collapsed amid the onlookers' gasps and tears, and it looked as though the famous bell towers might follow suit.

But they didn't. Notre-Dame is so badly scarred, injured, maimed and disfigured, but somehow, it's still standing.

Likewise, the Catholic Church still remains standing despite the controversies which have maimed it in recent years.

The fire happened at the start of Holy Week, and Notre-Dame can act as a powerful Easter metaphor for the Church.

For many, the Church still stands secure and strong despite its many scandals.

An Ipsos MORI poll in 2011 found that less than 10 per cent of French Catholics attended weekly Mass.

In much of Europe, weekly attendance at Mass for the continent's Catholics has fallen into single digits.

Despite this, many Parisians were literally on their knees on the banks on the Seine, reciting decades of the Rosary for the burning Notre-Dame; others sang Ave Maria as they mourned the burning building.

It is not absurd to mourn the loss of historical buildings such as Notre-Dame; these can be embedded in the collective psyche, and acutely so for Catholics.

Onlookers turned to prayer as Notre-Dame burned. Picture by AP Photo/Christophe Ena

Barack Obama, in his reaction to the fire, noted this when he tweeted: "It's in our nature to mourn when we see history lost."

Historic buildings are an important cultural reference point for so many.

It's why Isis destroyed ancient temples and churches in Syria. They realise that, given the human nature that Barack Obama spoke about, we will often mourn the loss of a historic building more than we will mourn the death of a stranger on the other side of the planet.

However, Obama went on to say that "it's also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can".

This is the challenge that also faces a disfigured and injured Church.

Corruption in the Vatican, predatory priests, endless headlines about abuse scandals; it's not easy to stay Catholic in the face of all of this. But in a manner similar to Notre-Dame, we somehow continue to persevere despite the flames that engulf us.

It hasn't been an easy task. The Church is handling abuse errors better than they have done in the past, but the response is still woefully lacking.

The faithful want a response reminiscent of Jesus when he literally drove out the sinful money collectors from the temple with a whip; but such a reaction has thus far not been forthcoming.

Corruption in the Vatican, predatory priests, endless headlines about abuse scandals; it's not easy to stay Catholic in the face of all of this. But in a manner similar to Notre-Dame, we somehow continue to persevere despite the flames that engulf us 

Actions speak much louder than words, but that being said, at least Pope Francis's words have been hitting the right tones.

In a recent documentary, he reaffirmed his 'zero-tolerance' stance on clerical sexual abuse. More strongly, he penned an open letter last August - timed for publication ahead of his visit to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin - which called on the Church to "halt before the sufferings of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice".

Francis further wrote that "it is essential that we acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated".

Firmly, he writes: "We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them."

But while there are those within the Church hierarchy who continue to cause us pain and sorrow, perhaps we ought to look for inspiration and renewal to the humble Catholics on the ground who quietly tend to the mustard seed.

Catholics like police officer Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame. He was a practising Catholic, who volunteered to take the place of a female hostage during a terror attack in France.

He was subsequently killed by the terrorists. His family said his Christian faith gave him the strength needed to do this.

And Catholics like Thérèse Kapangala. When the Congolese president refused to hand over power despite losing the election, the Catholic Church in Congo rebelled.

Thérèse Kapangala, a 24-year-old trainee nun, was killed for her part in protests.

A Congolese priest said of the killing: "The Catholic Church will not shut up; no force can make it shiver."

Pope Francis echoed the above sentiments when, speaking at Palm Sunday Mass last year, he asked of the young: "Even if others keep quiet, if we older people and leaders keep quiet, if the whole world keeps quiet and loses its joy, I ask you: Will you cry out?"

So let us hope that the Church and its faithful will not "shut up" about clerical sexual abuse and will heed Pope Francis's call to investigate all the Church's failings, to "cry out... without excuses or cowardice".

But let us also hope that the faithful, in order that the Church remains standing, resist from being 'single issue Catholics' who are so pre-occupied with a single issue, be it same-sex marriage or abortion, that they completely forget about Jesus and his message of love and forgiveness.

Indeed, Pope Francis has even asked that Catholics stop "obsessing" over all things sex.

Let us refrain from being Catholics who, in the words of Jesuit Fr James Martin, "try to be so Catholic that they are barely Christian".

In vigorous pursuit of a single issue, some Catholics become the complete antithesis of the outcast Jesus Christ; who asks us to give to all who beg from us, to be willing to turn the other cheek, to be always willing to forgive.

In the midst of all this intolerance for the sake of a single issue, they totally forget what it means to be a compassionate follower of Christ, and in turn make people fearful of the Gospel.

The Gospels recount the life and teachings of a first Century, brown-skinned, homeless, liberal, socialist, Palestinian Jew; a figure who was in favour of the separation of Church and State ("Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's"), who was forever welcoming of the stranger and the outcast, and who often ignored absolute laws and instead made love and compassion his guiding principles.

Notre-Dame is a beacon for the faithful and the non-faithful alike.

It's time for Catholics, in our thoughts and our deeds, to be a similar beacon in an ever secular society.

Pope Francis recently tweeted: "To understand, forgive, accompany and integrate. That is the mindset which should prevail in the Church."

In order that the Church should still stand, it's the only mindset we can have.

  • Diarmuid Pepper is a former religion teacher, who is currently studying for an MA in journalism.

The glass windows inside the damaged Notre-Dame cathedral. Picture by Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP

Flames and smoke rise from the blaze as the spire starts to topple on Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Picture by AP Photo/Thierry Mallet

Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral, pictured on Monday April 15 as the devastating fire took hold. Picture by AP Photo/Thibault Camus

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