Once the news broke, the French president Emmanuel Macron quickly cancelled a planned speech against the ‘yellow vests’ whose protests have been roiling his government. Instead, he spoke from in front of the still-burning church, promising a fund-raising campaign that would seek money from France and from “well beyond our frontiers”.
The sorrow for an event like this, whatever its cause—arson or accident—is a powerful force that draws people together. Twitter showed spontaneous groups of people gathered on the Paris streets, singing hymns. The world over, Catholics and Christians and many others of good will were saddened by the loss, still imprecisely known, but certainly significant.
In any similar event of public sorrow, the immediate emotional response to participate in rebuilding is strong. Indeed, a fundraising campaign beginning in a few hours has a high probability of raising millions. Wait a week, and the emotional effect will have diminished. People will return to whatever other preoccupations held their attention until the afternoon of the Ides of April 2019, Paris time. In fact, less than twenty-four hours after the blaze made headlines worldwide, several of the richest people and companies in France had already pledged hundreds of millions of euros for the reconstruction effort.
Nearly all of the churches in France are property of the state, due to the long and complex history of the relationship between the two institutions. At a moment like this, it might seem an advantage for the Church that the reconstruction be paid for out of the deep pockets of the state, rather than hope that the meager Sunday collection cover such things as billion-euro renovation projects. While the French state is not terribly financially well off at the moment, cynical observers note that the millions of tourists who visit Notre-Dame each year are reason enough to ensure that the church will be rebuilt, since the ticket money enters the coffers of the state.
One response, then, would be to collect as much as possible, and trust that the funds will be used prudently and carefully to rebuild in the best possible way. If the state rebuilds, Catholics will have the right to complain about how they do so. But Catholic France should stand up and affirm that it is made of a stuff no less durable than that of its ancestors, and that it can joyfully say again—perhaps with new materials and forms—what it has always said in this space. France needs to stand up not only on its barricades for the protest of the moment, and not merely in the armchair-philanthropist fashion Macron hopes to engage for fundraising.
An old story speaks of three construction workers laboring side by side in the mud of a cathedral foundation. When asked what they are doing, one says, “I’m laying bricks.” A second says, “I’m earning a living for my wife and children.” Fundraising serves to engage these first two types of workers.
The third worker says, “I’m building a home for the Creator of the Universe.” This is the spirit that built the cathedrals in the first place. A “Joan of Arc” response to the present moment would be for a group of faithful Catholics to propose to rebuild their cathedral as their ancestors built it: with their sweat and time and personal savings, and as an expression of their faith. Not merely a proper and precise reconstruction carried out by external experts, but as an act of joyous and courageous faith, a family rebuilding its home. Joan of Arc did not go into battle well prepared and prudentially covered against loss. She threw her whole being into the fray, and thus raised much more than a sword. She raised the spirits of an entire people, who began to see their dire situation as the opportunity for glorious victory. The crumbling of their ancient rights and monuments could be an end, or it could be the beginning of something new. Whether events are endings or beginnings depends largely on the spirit of the men and women engaged in that juncture of history.
The partial destruction of Notre-Dame could be just such an opportunity. Imagine if some of the thousands of young people who sang and prayed while the cathedral burned were invited to volunteer and then organized into work groups, their energy directed and focused. Imagine if artisans were employed to educate them, in a beautifully serious apprenticeship. Imagine if the priests of the French Catholic Church were on-site to celebrate daily Mass and encourage the builders to better understand the meaning of their work. Imagine if these women and men were helped to work in the delightfully self-effacing way that the first cathedral builders had: they placed perfectly sculpted statues so high up and so hidden that until our day no-one except God and the pigeons ever could appreciate their artistry.
Such an image might sound romantic and impossible. I bring it up only because I have personally witnessed just such a collaboration for many years, both in the artistic decoration of crumbling churches and also in the nearly all-volunteer production of one of Europe’s largest cultural fairs, the Rimini Meeting. The monies of a few billionaires are certainly welcome aids in reconstruction, but what is really needed is a deep reason to rebuild and a living spirit of faith in the hearts of the workers. This spirit and this reason are the principal heritage of the Church. She should stand proudly in this moment, a modern-day Joan of Arc against the enemy forces of complaint, resignation and despair.
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