By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio – articles – email ) | December 02, 2021
The interior makeover of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris raises some very troubling questions. Everyone will remember the April 2019 fire that severely damaged one of Christendom’s best-known churches, and the outpouring of donations from the rich and famous around the world to help restore it. The restoration of the exterior continues under the authority of the French Ministry of Culture; but the interior renovations are in the hands of the Archdiocese of Paris. (Such are the vagaries of life in the modern nation-state.)
It may (or may not) be relevant that the resignation of the Archbishop of Paris has just been accepted by Pope Francis due to an inappropriate relationship with a woman – who first became known nearly 200 years ago. ten years. In any case, he was in charge of this renovation of Notre-Dame, and for reasons detailed in a recent report by the Catholic News Agency (see our linked story, the Archdiocese of Paris will present plans for the interior of Notre Dame amid the outcry), many have raised serious questions about what appears to be a depressing secular plan for interior renewal. The plan calls for “the removal of classical confessionals, altars and sculptures”, replacing them with “modern art murals and new sound and light effects to create ’emotional spaces’.”
Opinions vary, of course, but there is much concern that interior renovation is heading towards kitsch or, as one reviewer suggested, a “politically correct Disneyland.” Perhaps fortunately in this case, the plan must be approved by the French Ministry of Culture.
Seven Gifts, Seven Sins, Seven Dangers
You have heard of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and you have also heard of the seven deadly sins. Here I will suggest seven differences this must be well understood by Catholics, both for the conception of the Church and for life.
1. Art versus illusion
The more we “design” and “decorate” with electronic effects like recorded music and artificial light, the more we remove a space from its real, concrete relationship with God and turn that space into a human counterfeit. While this may be perfectly fine in certain types of entertainment, it is disastrous in the service of God, who is essentially transcendent, who invites us to use our environment as an aid to approach and even contemplate him. Natural materials such as stone and wood, artistically shaped into shapes traditional within a given culture, let us root ourselves in what is lasting, contemplating the God who transcends to the most beautiful use of the gifts he has given us. What is real and lasting points to the infinite and eternal source of everything. Pervasive technology, constantly evolving in its application, teases us with an artificial experience, as immanent as it is unreal. It can be suitable for entertainment. It is not suitable for worship or self-examination before God.
2. Local vs. Global
The Catholic Church may be universal, but her universality is always expressed through the particular. Moreover, the Church may be global, but that does not even begin to exhaust its universality. A design effort to make a church “global” actually diminishes the connection between the particular and the universal. As finite beings, we are not able to express universality other than through our own “particular”. The effort to do so leads either to the banal or to the void of meaning. Either we trivialize, or we express nothing. Just as the Church is universal both because it is of God and because it values each people, each place and each culture, each particularity, so Catholicism, even more than politics, is always local. . The attempt to “artistically remove” the particularity of a church by extending its design to what we might call particularities foreign to its human provenance (whether modern art in a medieval church or African themes in a European church) is precisely a failure to recognize the genius of the universal of the Church regionalism. A beautiful church achieves the universal not by deliberately pointing to a wide range of detached particulars, as in the present plan, but by directing the true particulars of its own origins to God – that is, by giving glory through the profound relevance of its own localism.
3. Worship versus social messaging
We find the same dangers in the preference to foster human attitudes rather than genuine worship. Open “social messaging” has little or no place in the conception of the Church, just as it has little or no place in the divine liturgy: sometimes in a homily, of course, but even in the prayers of the faithful, we should be dealing with sincere prayer, not “social messaging” (although this principle is often abused). A Catholic social perspective, if it is to have a life beyond the latest cultural fads, must be rooted in our own worship of God and our incorporation into Christ. Unfortunately, social messaging (as seems to be envisioned in the cathedral’s new “politically correct” interior design in question here) puts the cart well ahead of the horse. We can only “go out” to others insofar as we are first grafted into the one body of Christ. The horizontal dimension emanates from the vertical dimension like a living fire, or else it crackles and dies. The design of the church should focus on lifting up the mind, heart, and soul to God. This alone has the power to remain; that alone converts.
4. Sacramental versus psychological
A healthy spirituality is a good psychology. In true religion, the sacramental always precedes and accompanies the psychological. But in the new conception, does the model of contemporary secular “influence” (psychological manipulation) take precedence over sacramental initiation and the resulting divine nurturing and inspiration? This question must be asked as confessionals and side altars are replaced by sound and light shows. I agree that ecclesiastical life is different today than in the heyday of Notre-Dame. The days of mass priests (less educated clergy ordained solely for the purpose of offering large-scale stipends/bequests) and frequent confessions may be over (although they only passed as the former and future king) . Perhaps the confessionals and side altars could be made fewer and larger. But this question is reminiscent of the United States’ own national basilica. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. offers a lesson through its large number of side altars, which represent the real contributions of different peoples, cultures and pieties to the construction of the basilica, and are in them themselves much more conducive to union with God than “emotional spaces”.
5. Rooted or Instant
I have already touched on the sense of rootedness that accompanies the use of particular natural materials, but there is also a permanence of “rootedness” which contrasts with all that is “instantaneous”, especially at a time when an ever-changing pattern of instantaneous gratification is one of the most pervasive (and least fortunate) influences of modern culture. Paradoxically, one of the drawbacks of sound and light design is that it is instantly configurable, instantly modifiable. Nothing could be more disastrous in the design of churches. This drastically diminishes the formative influence of the building: if we don’t like it next week, we can change it. On the contrary, entry into a Church must be entry into a space which recalls the essential permanence of the sacred realities it serves. Instant configurability sends exactly the wrong spiritual message.
6. Depth versus superficiality
Most of the preceding headings impinge on this one in one way or another: the architecture and craftsmanship of a church – that is, its structural design, exterior and interior – should they suggest a deep mystery or a superficial message? The more a church is oriented by design to worldly affairs and fashions—as if it has a built-in system for instantly changing moods and messages—the less it disposes those who enter to this reflection on things permanent. which is expressed, finally, in adoration and conversion of heart. A church is not a theater. In living memory, we have survived a period of congregational illumination through a steady succession of decorative banners, and if that hasn’t taught us a lesson, perhaps nothing human ever will. . But the profusion of childish banners did teach a lesson, if only negatively: “This is what superficial looks like.” As bright, flowery and smiling, the slogan of the day is not effective: to change hearts, we must go further and promote prayer.
7. God against the world
Ultimately, we must always distinguish the object of our concern from the object of our hope. Any ecclesiastical space that emphasizes the need to act on our worldly concerns at the expense of the need to place all our trust in Jesus Christ – or any design that seeks to focus our attention on the things that lie exterior of the building but do not transcend it – such a church promotes a desperate race for “human betterment”. Genuine trust and trust in God always increases charity and multiplies good in this world. But a shift from primary attention to material human needs fosters pride in our own powers, or avoidance, or burnout, or even despair. Without God at the center, we are reduced to fashionable (often harmful) causes or frank absorption in ideas of happiness born of the world, the flesh and the Devil. A church, by its design and decoration, must point not but upwards: “In the world you have tribulations; but be reassured, I have conquered the world” (Jn 33, 16).
Every church should be built on the principle that it is not us who save, only Christ. Every Catholic church is the house of God. It is designed to signal not only the reality but the very presence of God. It’s built just so we can find Him there. And from this discovery all other good things flow.
“Behold, saith our Lord and Saviour, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). This is the testimony of every church, and without this testimony we cannot even begin to stop the unrest we see all around us, any more than we can stem the tide of unrest in our own hearts. For without it, everything on earth does what it is in its nature to do: if it is not alive, it deteriorates; if it is alive, it weakens or ages, then it dies.
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