Searching For Relevance

Notre Dame...

April 19, 2019

Many of us watched in shock at the recent fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. A beautiful structure, representative of the artistic and architectural genius of humankind. It required 200 years to build, who knows how long it will take to repair? Nonetheless, I am confident of its restoration and hopeful it will reclaim its place of prominence for people of all faiths and nations.  

Still, this causes me to reflect on the place of religion in society.  Millions visit Notre Dame annually, but not for weddings, baptisms, funerals or worship. Mass is held daily, but the 50 or so in attendance are outnumbered by tourists milling about. Of the French population, 60% claim to be Catholic, but only 1 in 10 acknowledge praying daily. I didn’t realize until this week, the Catholic Church doesn’t own, but rents the Cathedral from the French government.

I have visited Notre Dame several times, but must confess that except for the presence of religious sculptures, stained glass and a marble altar, it didn’t feel different from visiting the Louvre in order to see the Mona Lisa. The French people are overwhelmingly secular, and yet, as the Cathedral burned, they sang, prayed and wept. Why?

Chris Cuomo, a devout Catholic and CNN journalist, responded to this puzzlement best, describing the fire as something more than a tragic event, destruction of an historic building, or monument to the architectural genius of humankind; “It represents,” he continued, “I’m not sure what, but . . . something more!”  And though words failed to explain the tears, prayers, and now, dollars donated to repair the church, Cuomo is correct, “This touched a nerve for so many precisely because, it is about something more!”

Perhaps, the “more” is the loss of history or heritage.  Maybe, it damages the vanity we reserve for our human accomplishments. Or, it might remind us that nothing lasts forever. Personally, it beckons me to ask, “What would our world be like without the church? Would people care? Or, have we  become oblivious to the tenuous nature of faith in our society as church after church dies, burnt to the ground by an attitude of, “who cares?”

A survey, as recent as this past week, revealed that non-dis-un-believers are now equal in number to Evangelicals and Catholics in the U,S.. This is the most drastic statistical shift recorded in 40 years. There is no massive fire to which we can attribute this decline, still, the roof is collapsing.  And my question is, “Has Christianity failed, or have we failed in our presentation of what it means be a Christian?” “Is faith, by nature irrelevant, or have we allowed it to become so?” I don’t know! But as the shadow of a cross lengthens and a stone inches closer to sealing a tomb, we need to ask, “Am I a disciple in hiding, or a follower of Christ, willing to risk running to the tomb in order to break the seal and roll back the stone, or not?”

Notre Dame, will be rebuilt!  But for what, and why? These are the more important questions. Will it matter to the faith it represents? Or, will it be rebuilt, because we can? Christianity is something more than a building — faith is something more than a beautifully designed space. It is a reminder of God’s presence in our world — a presence that once stood at the center of society — a presence that survived famines, bombs and revolutions. It tells us of a resurrection power we need, lest we live only for ourselves. Yes, the Cathedral will be rebuilt, but what about the church — the people — will it rise to anything more? This is the real question that waits to be answered, not just for the people of France, but each and every one of us.

May the joy and hope provided by the Resurrected Christ give each of us a song to sing, a prayer to offer, and tears of joy by which to believe. He is Risen — and so shall we!

Rev. Keith A. Haemmelmann