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What is Notre Dame Cathedral for?

Leaked proposals for the restoration of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral have kicked off a frenzy of protest among some Catholics, both in France and beyond.

Behind a “hot take” debate about aesthetics and cultural heritage is a more fundamental question about what Notre Dame, or any cathedral for that matter, is actually for. And amid widespread institutional disaffilation in countries where Christianity was once a powerful cultural force, that question has relevance well beyond the banks of the River Seine.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, Sept., 2019. Credit: Bruno Giuliani / Alamy

A set of plans for renovations to the cathedral’s interior was first reported by The Daily Telegraph over the weekend. It apparently includes the removal of many of the cathedrals confessionals and the transformation of historic side altars into spaces focused on a “dialogue” between traditional art and modern installations.

Plans reportedly also include installations themed to reflect socio-political issues, including the environment, and the projection of scriptural verses onto the cathedral walls in different languages, including Mandarin.

Critics of the scheme have said the restoration plans amount to turning the iconic Gothic church into a kind of woke, a spiritual “Disneyland;” a tourist attraction full of mood lighting, modern art, and “emotional spaces.”

But the priest responsible for the plans has pushed back, and offered a rationale for the redesign. He has insisted the aim is to preserve the cathedral’s focus on divine liturgy while embracing the catechetical potential offered by Notre Dame’s status as a global tourist attraction.

Fr. Gilles Drouin is the director of the Higher Institute of Liturgy of the Catholic Institute of Paris, the body charged by the Archdiocese of Paris with forming a proposal for restoring the cathedral’s interior following the 2019 fire which effectively gutted the building.

While the priest has stressed that his institute’s proposals have the full support of Paris’ Archbishop Michael Aupetit, the building itself is the property of the state, and Drouin’s plans will have to pass muster at the government’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission next week.

The commission has, at least in relation to the cathedral’s exterior, indicated in the past that it prefers a “just as it was” approach to the restoration of the World Heritage Site.

Many outraged at the prospect of modern art and mood music within the Church are hoping the government’s commission will veto the plans — ironically, they are now looking to the secular state to forestall the Church’s own proposals for the cathedral’s interior.

There are, it would seem from the reports, legitimate questions about good taste regarding at least parts of the plans; abstract cloudscapes are not for everyone at the best of times. In a landmark building, restored after the French Revolution to recapture the glory of medieval European Catholicism, words like “heritage” and “history” are not invoked lightly.

But, issues of aesthetics aside, Fr. Drouin’s rationale for a renewed interior raises interesting questions about how best to use the cathedral, and how to account for the fact that most visitors to Notre Dame are tourists, not worshipers. Many have little exposure to the Gospel.

In an interview  after the plans were reported, Drouin said plans for the cathedral nave were to ensure that its purpose as a coherent liturgical space are emphasized — with lower level lighting among the assembly intended to avoid the impression that the altar and choir are “a theatre stage” in a “performance hall,” and with the nave capped with a new, upsized baptistry, which would be the first thing visitors encountered upon entrance.

Major historical artworks are intended to be moved out of side chapels, he said, but would be placed up around the altar, where they were originally intended to be in the first place.

The previous layout of the cathedral may have been historical, Drouin said, but it had also become “deficient, logistically and pastorally.”

The proposed changes to the church are designed to engage those coming to see the cathedral who don’t have a Christian frame of reference — “Chinese visitors may not necessarily understand the Nativity,” he said, hence the projections in Mandarin.

Is it possible to accept Drouin’s premise, even while criticizing the particulars of the plan in place. Should the cathedral be renovated in order to better express the meaning of the Gospel to those who visit it with no frame of reference? Or does its long-standing transcendent beauty do enough to invite visitors in the transcendent mystery of God.

Critics of the plan, quoted in the Telegraph, noted that similar plans would never be countenanced in, for example, London’s Westminster Abbey. This is probably true.

But space for prayer, or signs of a living Christianity which speak to the abbey’s visitors, are not front and center in most people’s experience of that church either.

Presumably all Catholics would prefer Notre Dame to be primarily, even exclusively, a thriving focal point for public worship and Catholic national life in France. But in reality it is a public building, owned by the government, and marketed to tourists as a cultural landmark.

Freezing the cathedral’s interior in time might preserve its historical beauty, but Parisian Church leaders fear it also risks limiting its potential, preserving it as a museum piece, without reference to current catechetical possibilities. How does that perspective fit into the identity of Notre Dame?

The rapid, if not already complete, secularization of Europe is a constant point of discussion and debate, as is how to preserve the continent’s Christian roots.

Yet, every year millions of tourists file through the grand monuments of the continent’s religious past. Those buildings present, surely, a necessary opportunity for evangelization — exactly the premise behind the proposals for Notre Dame.

Drouin has stressed that the reported versions of his plans are not the current proposal. The final iteration won’t be confirmed until it is submitted for commission approval on Dec. 9.

Even assuming the more controversial proposals, like modern fresco paintings, are not in the final draft, it’s likely that some/much/all of the plan will be criticized as an inappropriate, cack-handed attempt to make the gothic masterpiece “modern” and “accessible” — perhaps fairly so.

But criticism of specific ideas, bad art, or disregard for historic beauty can be separate from a conversation about what role major Christian buildings have in the evangelization.

As the Church deals with the reality of secularization, bishops are going to have to balance the tension between preserving the past and proclaiming the Gospel in a changed and still changing world. Those two ends will not always be one and the same, and Notre Dame will not be the last time this tension is felt.

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