I’m still trying to make sense of the global response to the
fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, from the grief shown by Parisians, to the heartfelt
shock of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. Frankly, it all surprises
People you’d least expect to give a nod to anything Catholic – including journalists – were quick to express sadness at the devastation to the church.
A secular reporter I dealt with confessed to fighting back tears as she worked on her Notre-Dame story. Now journalists are more inclined to indulge in irreverent black humour to deal with the emotional impact of troubling stories. For a reporter to cry writing about Notre-Dame suggests there’s something deeper at the root of the story.
Popular French Catholic singer Gregory Turpin joined thousands of Parisians watching the cathedral burn. “Whether one is an atheist or not, whether one is Republican or not, it’s a part of history that goes away,” he said. “It may be time to realize that we are all connected to our history.”
Maybe, but we lose important pieces of history all the time. War and natural disasters regularly destroy historic architecture and antiquities. In 2003, the College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad lost its entire library to looters who set fire to the collection during the invasion of Iraq. ISIS all but destroyed the ancient city of Palmyra, without registering the public shock Notre-Dame generated.
People can be upset by a lost connection with history. But I’m not buying that the world is merely reacting to a historical loss in Paris. Like the ongoing removal of crucifixes and banning of visible religious expressions in Quebec, the public response is going beyond what one would expect in a secular society.
Perhaps it’s subliminal recognition of the interwoven relationship between beauty, goodness, and truth, which Bishop Robert Barron says amounts to a natural evangelization for people. Beauty, goodness, and truth find a way to touch our hearts, and when beauty has a sense of the sacred, it’s even more profound.
It reminds me of Ken Follett’s grand novel Pillars of the Earth about the building of the world’s greatest Gothic cathedral. Follett doesn’t even believe in God, yet he wrote a love letter to the builders of the medieval cathedrals. The book resonates with appreciation for the builders who came together for various reasons to build churches that wouldn’t be completed in their lifetimes.
In 2010, the Canadian bishops’ commission for doctrine, chaired by Arcbhishop Miller, released a document called Popular Piety in Canada: Reflections on Some Popular Expressions of the Faith. Examining 177 popular shrines and sites of devotion in Canada, it concluded that despite concerns of an increasingly secularized society, popular piety remains strong. St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, for example, draws millions of visitors a year. Perhaps the Notre-Dame disaster reveals the people of France are recovering their sense of popular piety, or recognizing what has always been there.
I suspect that those who turned out in Paris, crying, upset, were exhibiting a form of popular piety believed to have been lost forever, particularly in Europe. Despite the ongoing secularization that’s going on in much of the Western world, including Canada, religious faith continues.
As Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby wrote in 2015, secularization describes a movement away from the religion end of the continuum. On the other hand, there is such a thing as desecularization, or movement in the direction toward religion. There is ongoing tension between those two forces, with the largest group of people reportedly somewhere in the middle. “Depending on social and cultural conditions and the activity of religious groups, the balance always is potentially in motion,” says Bibby.
Canadians and people everywhere “will always be in the market for viable, satisfactory answers that allow them to deal with death,” says Bibby. The one advantage faith has and few others possess, is hope.
Institutions like Notre-Dame Cathedral convey that hope, through the beauty, goodness, and truth they represent.
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