Monday, April 22, 2019

Why a Cathedral Matters

This Easter Monday marks the "octave day" of the terrible Notre Dame fire, which destroyed the Paris cathedral's 13th-century roof and its 19th-century spire. Thankfully, the Crown of Thorns, Saint. Louis IX’s Robe, and the relic of the True Cross were saved by the firefighters' chaplain, while the altar and the its gold Cross still stand (photo).

Reactions to that tragic event have been strongly supportive of the cathedral's reconstruction. The French State (the owner of the cathedral), varied billionaires, and those of much more modest means all seem eager to step up, repair the damage, and restore that great monument of France's historic faith. That is obviously all to the good and something to celebrate. 

President Macron has committed to rebuilding the great cathedral in five years. Meanwhile, however, Paris is bereft of a functioning cathedral. Those who wish to attend Mass at Notre Dame will eventually be able to avail themselves of an "ephemeral cathedral," a wooden substitute church to be built right in front of the damaged cathedral as soon as the site is safe and is reopened to the public.That too is as it should be - because a cathedral, however important it may be as an historical monument (and a tourist attraction) is always first and foremost the seat of the local Church and a sacred place set apart for worship.

Until the wooden substitute is constructed, worshipers will obviously have to use other parish churches. Thus the Archbishop of Parish celebrated Holy Thursday morning's Chrism Mass (attended by Madame Macron and some Government Ministers) at Saint-Sulpice, the city's second largest church, and he celebrated Easter Sunday's morning Mass at Saint-Eustache Church on the right bank of the Seine.). 

I was fortunate to grow up in a city where there was no doubt that the cathedral was the major church. When we went downtown to shop or see the show at Radio City or whatever, we usually made a visit to Saint Patrick's Cathedral. It was just what one did. Cathedrals, of course, are urban structures, and in older European cities are often found at, or close to, the city's center. When Archbishop John Hughes (1797-1864) chose the location for New York's new cathedral in the 1850s, he was criticized and ridiculed for planning to build so far from the city center. More prescient than his critics, Hughes understood the dynamic of urban growth and recognized that the city's imminent expansion would make his chosen site "the heart of the city." When it was dedicated on May 25, 1879, some 7000 people filled all the available space in the not yet fully finished but already grand church.

The urban character of cathedrals reflects the historical fact that Christianity developed and expanded in the Roman Empire as an urban religion. It also reflects the religious reality that, just as cities are central gathering places which unite diverse people, Christianity is a gathering religion which assembles communities in central places, united by their common faith in the Risen Christ in a way which transcends their diverse origins.

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