I just returned from my fourth trip to Europe to see the venerable churches and cathedrals that hopefully received more than just passing mention in your youthful Catholic education. Appropriately enough, my first visit to a continental church was to Saint Peter’s in Rome in 2013. On our third trip in 2019, my wife and I had reserved tickets for a special tour of Notre Dame in Paris. Three weeks before we left home, my personal devices all sprung to life in my office with those extraordinary camera shots of the cathedral in a ball of flames. We were able to take a boat ride around the island on which Notre Dame sits, the smell of charred wood still in the air a month later. The rebuilding of Notre Dame has not been without controversy. There are those who would like to see Notre Dame restored to its original form, and others who envision a remodeled cathedral as a sort of bridge between the old and the new worlds. Like so many of the churches in Europe, the original Notre Dame dates to around 1000 A.D., and some churches are considerably older than that.
The first time I laid eyes on St. Peter’s in 2013, I said to myself, “How in the world did they ever pull this off?” When I attended Mass last weekend in Brussels before flying home on Tuesday, I wondered to myself, “How much longer will these churches continue—physically and spiritually?” There are thousands of cathedrals and churches in Europe desperately in need of repair and restoration, if indeed that is the appropriate response of Catholicism to its material heritage in the third millennium. I am not for a moment suggesting that we do not need places of beauty to proclaim the Word and break the Bread. If anything, European history has reinforced the marriage of beauty and faith. What I am thinking is that our earthly holdings are going to accelerate our religious thinking about our identity as Catholics. How we dress ourselves, so to speak, proclaims volumes about our self-identity.
You do not need to be a theologian or an economist to comprehend the enormous cost of maintaining the large network of majestic and famous churches across the Atlantic. Catholic dioceses in the United States are facing this problem as well, possibly with some measure of denial. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York was completed in the late 1800’s, and while it is constantly under maintenance and refurbishing, it is a young church compared to Paris’s Notre Dame or Rome’s St. John Lateran. This is not to downplay the critical pressures here in the states as parishes close and consolidate. While we were away, several more U.S. dioceses declared bankruptcy while others polished their consolidation plans. I believe that about 10% of American dioceses have declared bankruptcy. At the least, American Catholicism is not going to have a lot of loose change jingling in its pockets for splendid extravaganzas of religious showcases, at least if the public accounting is straightforward.
For years how many of us have heard people say, “I don’t give money to the Church because it is awash in priceless treasures in Rome?” The fly in that argument is precisely the “priceless” tag—the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel cannot be liquified into hard cash, for starters, and caring for such art is enormously expensive—as the proprietors of Notre Dame Cathedral discovered, to their grief.
I say “proprietors” because, after considerable research, it is still not clear to me who, ultimately, is responsible for the survival of that cathedral and/or its restoration. This is not a spiritual question about the authority of the Archbishop of Paris, but more about his landlord. The next time you are flying the red eye across an ocean, go to the Wikipedia entry on ‘Paris Notre Dame Cathedral.” Just be sure you are powered up for several hours of reading. It seems that the French Catholic Church and the “secular arm” [government authorities] have been intimately joined in a “throne and altar” marriage dating back to early medieval times. This was quite common in the medieval era, and even today Germany subsidizes communities of worship for those who register with the government in a particular faith.
In the 1800’s, after the French Revolution had settled, there were many in France who believed the cathedral should be demolished because it had become a decrepit eyesore. In 1831, Victor Hugo published his classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which led to something of a Gothic art revival and renewed interest in Notre Dame as a national monument. However, after two world wars and the cultural revolution of the 1960’s, the structure had again declined such that in 2018 some very essential inspections and stop-gap repairs were undertaken. It is hard to believe, but in 2019 there was no fire alarm system between the structure and the local first providers. The internal alarm at Notre Dame sounded at 6:18 PM on that fateful night. The construction supervisor sent an assistant to crawl into the rafters to determine what exactly was happening. The fire department was not called until 6:51, and the first trucks arrived at 7:01.
What followed is a lesson in the complication of managing old church treasures. In the days immediately following the fire, almost $1 billion was promised by some of France's richest and most powerful families and companies, some of whom sought to outbid each other. Critics complained that the bidding was more about the vanity of the donors wishing to be immortalized in the edifice's fabled stones than the preservation of church heritage. Then the French President, Emmanuel Macron, publicly stated that the restored cathedral would indeed combine the new and the old. Macron could say this in confidence because, strange as it may seem to Americans, Catholic cathedrals in France are insured by the government, through legislation dating to 1906, I believe. The construction company is being investigated for negligence as well. France is hosting the Olympics in 2024 and will host tourists at the cathedral, though full regular services are hoped for in 2025. Curiously, Americans are donating to the reconstruction through a website established for that purpose.
I have discussed the Notre Dame situation at some length because the route of the past month’s travels opened my eyes to the large number of aged churches from Budapest to Brussels; we traveled on a Viking River Cruise along the Danube and other waterways, and I cannot even guess how many Catholic churches we viewed along the water, and even more to the point, how many churches/cathedrals we toured at some length. Every one of those churches is playing out its “Notre Dame drama” in its own way. In a few days I will talk about the religious experiences conveyed to me by medieval and renaissance builders and artists in their structures, what it is like to compose yourself in prayer surrounded by Michaelangelo and Reubens, on the one hand, and a vial of what was reputed to be Christ’s Good Friday Blood on the other.
Can the boy in Florida get back to his Sunday Mass after he’s seen Budapest and Brussels?