Notre Dame is not, and never should be, just a museum


As the Archbishop of Paris put it, the cathedral was built to house the Bread of Life

Much as already been written, even hours after the devastating fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, about the “iconic status” of the building, its value to world heritage and the fact, noted by Pope Francis, that the building was “an architectural jewel of collective memory.” It took, however, the quiet but thoughtful Archbishop of Paris, a former medical doctor, Michel Aupetit, to ask, rhetorically, quite why the building was, and is, a “jewel.”

Interviewed on French television, Archbishop Aupetit, said simply that the magnificent basilica was built for one reason, not to be a “jewel,” not even to house the Crown of Thorns; Notre Dame existed for “un morceau de pain – for a piece of bread,” the bread, he said, Catholics believe is the “Body of Christ.”

All churches, from the magnificence of Notre Dame in Paris, St Peter’s in Rome, to a tiny village church or a mud hut in the missions, if the Eucharist is present, are built to be the “domus Dei,” the house of God. For a Catholic, the real absence we feel on Good Friday, when the tabernacle is empty and the sanctuary light extinguished, is a palpable confirmation that, in a sense, where the “morceau de pain” is not present, a church is a zombie church, seemingly alive but really dead.

Rightly the world, especially those who consider themselves cultured, were horrified seeing ISIS destroy ancient artefacts from Mesopotamian civilization, and the attempted destruction of Palmyra in Syria. Notre Dame de Paris is an object of world heritage, a thing of beauty appreciated by those of all faiths and none. Yet the purpose of the building also speaks, not only to the reality, ignored by the constitution of the European Union, of the massive contribution of Christian culture to the creation of Western civilization, but to the living faith without which the basilica would be just a museum.

The basilica of Our Lady in Paris was named, not as one of the network talking heads said to “honour the building as a mother,” a sign of the growing religious illiteracy of those in the media, but dedicated to the Mother of God, the first living tabernacle of the Word made Flesh. This “icon” points to something greater than man, its verticality and visibility as sign of the transcendent, to the truth of the Faith which laboured for more than a hundred years to build it.

When the monsters who unleashed the horror of the French revolution desecrated the basilica and named it the temple of the “Cult of Reason,” destroying images of Our Lady and replacing Her with the “goddess of Liberty,” in an sense the basilica ceased to exist, but, rather as the churches of former communist countries which were used as sports halls or cinemas were restored to sacred use, so Notre Dame returned to her former glory once the sacraments were celebrated again.

Speaking to the French bishops during their ‘Ad Limina’ visit in 1997, Pope John Paul II congratulated the French State for its care of so many cathedrals and churches but, he said, the liturgy “must always be the true raison d’etre of these monuments.”

Our Lady’s house of bread, the “morceau de pain” which is the Body of Christ will rise again, and the basilica will be living church. It will not be a museum, however much of a “jewel of collective memory” it is.

This article has been updated. A previous version contained a quotation wrongly attributed to President Macron.