Monsignor Michel Aupetit was, until recently, the Archbishop of Paris. I had come across his homilies on the internet. He is a tough, tall, clever, faithful man – delightfully direct. Before he became a priest, he was a medical doctor, rising through the medical ranks until he was 39. I had some real hope he would influence the restoration of Notre Dame for good. He seemed a man of profound and authentic spirituality.
Because for some time now, there have been rumours of the struggle behind the restoration of Notre Dame. On the one hand you have the wilder French creative and artistic minds, typified of the brutal modernism that placed the steel and glass pyramid at the Louvres; they want a contemporary makeover of Notre Dame, allied with the creators of Disneyland Paris. On the other side , there are traditionalist defenders of the Church and all she stands for. They want her restored as she was before the fire..
Believing that the Medieval mind can’t speak adequately to the sub-Christian entertainment junkie culture, plans have been made to full the interior with screens and computer shows, in order to highlight diversity and entertainment.
Perhaps the one man who could have stopped or moderated that was Archbishop Aupetit. But just as the battle lines were being drawn, someone leaked an awkward email which had been sent some years ago in error to his then secretary. It showed the Archbishop had been inappropriately close to a woman a decade earlier. Aupetit insisted the relationship had been at worst inappropriate, and always platonic.
The moment the news broke he placed his future in the hands of Pope Francis. Aupetit’s supporters claimed that he was a man of great strength of character and integrity who had been ambushed by his opponents who did not like his firm leadership; and his opponents claimed that he was too inflexible and rigid.
Monsignor Aupetit placed his future in the Pope’s hands. And almost instantaneously the Pope ‘accepted his resignation’, and he was gone. But an exploration of contrast between the politics and spirituality that lay behind the pope’s decision may not be as pressing as the importance of drawing attention to the crisis the potential sacrilege being planned may constitute.
Whatever the issues that lay behind the pope’s decision, it has left Notre Dame less well defended.
The ownership of churches in France is not a straightforward matter. Since 1905, all Catholic cathedrals and church were owned by the state and local municipality respectively.
And this is the context in which the decisions as to how to reconstruct Notre Dame will be made. The committee set up by the state has decided that confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures are going to be replaced with modern art murals and computer generated light and sound effects.
Visitors would be led on a “discovery trail” through themed chapels, including one with a strong environmental focus.
“It’s as if Disney were entering Notre-Dame,” objected Maurice Culot, a prize-winning Paris-based architect, urbanist, theorist and critic who has seen the plans.
“What they are proposing to do to Notre-Dame would never be done to Westminster Abbey or Saint Peter’s in Rome. It’s a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial given the grandeur of the place.”
A senior source close to the renovation said that the plans risked turning this emblem of the faith in stone and space into an “experimental showroom” that would “mutilate” the work of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the celebrated architect who restored the cathedral following the ravages of the French Revolution in an effort to recapture the spirit of Medieval Christianity.
So, at heart is a struggle between the relative merits of medieval Christianity and the twenty first century. There is a case for claiming that it was in the Middle Ages that Christian culture flourished at is zenith. Instead of being a regressive period it a time of the deepest piety, the greatest commitment and the most beautiful architecture, and has never been surpassed. This exercise in critical discernment finds some echo in the struggle within the Catholic Church today over the liturgy and the place of the Latin Mass. There also ideas of progress grapple and appear to compete with experiences of holiness.
As the opposing parties argue for the dominance of whatever cultural and aesthetic values they give preference to, the struggle at Notre Dame raises profound questions of how holiness, and transcendence coexist with populism and what is claimed to be progress.
However the Church grapples with contemporary populism and its need to inform and evangelise, it cannot afford to do it by erasing its deepest expressions of holiness that have been so effectively carved in stone.
The conversion of this cathedral, lying at the heart of Europe, should continue to provide an experience of the numinous which makes more possible the conversion of the soul.
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