Many of us will recall having read at some time the novel by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, that chronicles events in London and Paris in the years leading up to the French Revolution.
Having followed the events of the recent fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and preparing for the upcoming dedication of Christ Cathedral, I wonder if there could be a reflection entitled A Tale of Two Cathedrals? The images of both Notre Dame and Christ Cathedral are powerful these days. Just this week, as the work on the interior of Christ Cathedral is being completed, the repair of the automatic mechanism of the carillon was completed and the carillon began to ring the hours and peal for the first time in years! In cathedrals and churches, the bells draw one’s attention to God. A number of people on campus, like our security guards, commented very happily on this to me. The song of the tower chimes this week is fitting for new life in Holy Week and the Paschal Season.
At the same time, viewing the tragedy of the fire at the Cathedral at Notre Dame in Paris, I was struck, as I mentioned on Holy Thursday at Holy Family Cathedral, how the tragedy of this fire seemed to draw Catholics together in ways that nothing else could. The image of the cross which was shining through the rubble of the fire seems to call to us of the victory of life over death! The life of Notre Dame, which has inspired so many over the years (as for example the conversion of Paul Claudel after having experienced Vespers in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the 1800s) will continue. The young people surrounding the cathedral as it was burning, singing to the Blessed Mother, is another sign of hope and life coming from this ancient cathedral.
Reflecting on both cathedrals illuminates the significance and foundation of a Cathedral Church as a sign of unity in faith for a local Church. This is not always easy to understand here in the United States, which is, in its foundation essentially a Protestant and Congregational country, where no such house of worship has existed or lived in the same way as the great cathedrals in the Catholic Countries around the world. To help us do this here, I turn to the words of Pope Benedict XVI when he spoke of the theology cathedrals at his General Audience on November 18, 2009. (The word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word “cathedra” meaning the church where the chair or “cathedra” of the Diocesan Bishop is, where the Bishop presides and teaches from.) The whole text is a great teaching tool about what a Cathedral is.
Speaking specifically of Gothic cathedrals, but this quote can certainly refer to Christ Cathedral and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, each from their own age, Pope Benedict XVI reflects:
“In the catecheses of the past few weeks I have presented several aspects of medieval theology. The Christian faith, however, deeply rooted in the men and women of those centuries, did not only give rise to masterpieces of theological literature, thought and faith. It also inspired one of the loftiest expressions of universal civilization: the cathedral, the true glory of the Christian Middle Ages. Indeed, for about three centuries, from the beginning of the 11th century, Europe experienced extraordinary artistic creativity and fervor. An ancient chronicler described the enthusiasm and the hardworking spirit of those times in these words: “It happens that throughout the world, but especially in Italy and in Gaul, people began rebuilding churches although many had no need of such restoration because they were in good condition. ‘It was like a competition between one people and another; one might have believed that the world, shaking off of its rags and tatters, wanted to be re-clad throughout in the white marble of new churches. In short, all these cathedral Churches, a large number of monastic churches and even village oratories, were restored by the faithful at that time”.
I have experienced this personally in the artisans from Italy for the stone work and the organ restoration. I have sensed this in the pride of the workers, who have followed the words of our General Contractor Synder Langston whose motto proclaims to its workers and craftsmen and women “Think of yourself as building a cathedral.” I know that the same will hold true for those who will be rebuilding Notre Dame from the ashes and rubble, as the Cross shining from the inside proclaims to us.
And, even more, in the Providence of God, so clearly taught by Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise de Marillac (Both from France, and Paris in particular): that both Christ Cathedral and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in their rebuilding might well be chosen instruments of the Lord for us, to lead us from the current age of the ashes of challenge to a new day and new time of a testimony of the light and love of Christ that shines forth to all and beckons us