Notre Dame and the Museumification of Faith
We must embrace our faith more profoundly than ever before
On April 15, the world watched as a fire tore through the summit of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Mouths agape, both Parisians and the broader international community – seemingly of all faith traditions – stared and wondered what was to come of the holy site.
I visited Notre Dame once, in April 2011, when my wife Bernadette and I chaperoned a student trip to France. At the time, we were expecting our oldest child, our son John-Paul, born weeks later on June 6. (Yes, his birth on D-Day impressed his history-loving father.)
Since I had studied in Spain during the summers of 2007 and 2008, and had visited so many gothic cathedrals and other holy sites there as well, I noticed a similar phenomenon during our visit to Notre Dame — what I regard as the museumification of faith. In the interest of full disclosure, when preparing to write this piece, I noticed that the term “museumification” was, seemingly curiously coined a little over 10 years ago, by author and Professor Michael Di Giovine of the University of Chicago in his 2008 book The Heritage-scape: U.N.E.S.C.O., World Heritage, and Tourism.
Di Giovine describes museumification as “transition from a living city to that of an idealized re-presentation of itself, wherein everything is considered not for its use, but for its value as a potential museum artifact.” The link between that term and what happened in the midst of the Notre Dame is striking.
As the world stood stunned while flames might as well have engulfed the famed twelfth-century church, those who saw the embers wafting over the Île de la Cité essentially fell into two groups: those who showed concern for the Holy Eucharist and the Church’s relics in particular, and those who viewed Notre Dame as a sort of museum.
The former perspective was evidenced in the thankful rescue of the Holy Eucharist and key relics by a fire chaplain, Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, many faithful young French Catholics who lined the streets singing sacred hymns, and other occasions for celebration. Meanwhile, the latter perspective was displayed by various media outlets, occasionally rife with religious illiteracy, emphasizing Notre Dame’s historical and cultural significance (which adherents to both perspectives will readily agree upon), yet either diminishing or simply ignoring the cathedral’s transcendent worth to believers.
In light of my preoccupation with the museumification of Notre Dame, after the fire, I emailed Geoff Molchan, my friend and colleague of Bishop McNamara High School, a veteran history teacher and devout Catholic who was helping to lead a student trip to Spain at the time. I asked Geoff if he could succinctly describe Notre Dame from both a religious and historical standpoint. Geoff replied, “Notre Dame is the finest example of medieval Gothic art and architecture. It also is symbolic of the importance of Catholic faith past and present. Having such an important historical and religious treasure damaged is tragic. I pray the damage is not irreparable.”
Confidently grateful that Geoff was able to view Notre Dame’s comprehensive worth, I also took to the internet to invite friends and followers to share their input in terms of different aspects of the fire. Another history-loving Catholic friend and educator, Nancy Parode, remarked, “I have seen brief comments on the other times Notre-Dame has been attacked or damaged. Perhaps it would be helpful to learn more about those times. It would also be good to learn about the rebuilding efforts/restorations of Notre Dame, because the newest restoration is about to begin.”
Cindy Morgan, an advocate for human life and religious liberty, viewed the situation with sincere optimism: “Catholics will continue to have and keep their faith regardless of church buildings. Thinking about the Catholics in China who recently had their church destroyed by the government. Their faith will remain long after the building is gone.”
Stephanie Sibal reminded us that: “The Cross survived! Beauty is an important evangelizing tool for the Church. I also think there is significance to the timing of the fire being during Holy Week. It’s symbolic, to be sure.”
Thomas Do, a former theology student who is now studying at Catholic University in DC, provided the captivating insight that the story of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame can remind us to value and respect human dignity as a gift from God. Another Catholic family friend, Marybeth Guminski, shared that she was “so thankful no loss of life occurred.”
Taken collectively, these assessments indicate the importance of maintaining a vibrant faith, even in the midst of a challenging situation. At this year’s Easter Vigil, Catholic churches both in the United States and around the world welcomed new members into the Catholic Church. Here in the Archdiocese of Washington, I have been encouraged by the accounts of many who have come into the Catholic faith, including the journeys to Catholicism portrayed in these emblematic headlines from the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Standard newspaper: “Inspired by Son’s Faith, Bethesda Family Prepares to Become Catholic at Easter” by Mark Zimmermann; “Married Couple Will Fully Enter Church and Have Marriage Validated at Easter Vigil Mass” by Richard Szczepanowski; “Mother Will Follow in Daughter’s Path When Baptized at St. Matthew’s This Easter” by Kelly Sankowski.
It is no exaggeration to assert that the last calendar year has featured no shortage of scandal, tragedy, setback and other circumstances that have rocked the faith of many. Who knows what the future will bring in terms of catastrophe. We Catholics must ensure that we do not museumify our faith so that it comes off as a sterile bauble and little more. Rather, looking to the example of those who are courageously entering the Catholic Church at easily one of the most controversy-laden eras in history, we must embrace our faith more profoundly than ever before, especially in light of the harshness with which the Christian community has been dealt in nations around the world that lack religious freedom (which we cannot even take for granted here in the United States, or in France, both of which have seen a rise in the willful desecration of churches of late).
Whether a “cradle Catholic” or a convert (ideally, all Catholics are daily converts), we would do well to recall God’s words through the prophet Isaiah, a passage that reminds us of why, despite fires, floods, and any other calamity, we ultimately have joy at Easter and throughout the year, come what may: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. When you pass through waters, I will be with you; through rivers, you shall not be swept away. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, nor will flames consume you. For I, the Lord, am your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3).