Rebuilding a Church Means Rebuilding the People

Neslihan Senocak, Associate Professor of History
May 08, 2019

Cathedrals are not just physical spaces dedicated to Christian worship. They were constructed to mirror the heavenly Jerusalem on earth. Hence, the spectacular proportions, the pomp and the magnificence aspiring to the idea of what the divine residence of God up in the Heavens must look like. The many architectural innovations such as vaulted ceilings below the roof, flying buttresses or the floating dome of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia unsupported by columns were all done to give a likeness of the infinity of space, the simultaneous omnipresence and remoteness of God further than the fixed stars. At least this is what a cathedral meant to medieval people, who built them in an unprecedented act of solidarity, the poor joining the rich in their donations, the townspeople discussing the cathedral plans with kings, princes and the bishops.

But that is not what Notre-Dame means to the Parisian or French people of today.

Before proceeding hastily with rebuilding Notre-Dame, the French need to ask themselves: What does this cathedral now stand for? What sets it apart from other monumental historical buildings? Is it a major tourist attraction that brings in money and business? Is it a symbol of national unity? And if yes, does it truly represent France even as the nation is becoming multi-ethnic and multi-religious?

Those who see it primarily by its original function, as a church of Roman Catholicism, should remember that “rebuilding a church” is essentially an allegory for the reform of the Church. When Saint Francis of Assisi reportedly heard the divine words, “Go and rebuild my Church!” while kneeling in front of the cross of San Damiano, he understood his mission to be calling people away from a materialistic and anxiety-ridden life to a simple and spiritual life. If Pope Francis wishes to honor the saint, whose name he took, he should remind the donors of Notre-Dame that rebuilding a church is foremost rebuilding the people.