Good Friday 2019
Fr David Ranson
During the week many of us were affected by the scenes of the fire that ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have been in this extraordinary church the news was particularly upsetting. Notre Dame is the very heart of Paris and of France. Paul Claude himself wrote around the time of his conversion in 1886, "Notre Dame is not just a building but a living person.” When I visited it some years ago, I could not but help but compare it to the Pantheon, the monument to the French intellectual tradition. When I visited it, the Pantheon was virtually empty. Yet, in Notre Dame many hundreds were roaming its interior; many were just sitting quietly. In civil religion nothing is personal or relational. It is cerebral and intellectual, demanding, sterile. By contrast, in Notre Dame Cathedral humanity is celebrated its glory and its vulnerability. The spirit is one of hospitality. This is a cathedral in which people feel at home, people of all faiths, no faith. Here one senses lives are changed. And so, it was not surprising that the spectacle of its potential destruction touched a nerve in so many. The sense of enormous loss was palpable. Something essential was on the brink of death.
In the pictures that came through of the interior of the damaged cathedral in the days following I was especially moved by one. It is a photo of a pile of debris in the nave of the church directly in front of the sanctuary. And behind the debris remains the glow of the golden Cross, which is positioned behind the sanctuary. In the photo, the Cross presents as this most remarkable symbol of enduring hope in the face of the potential disaster. At the base of the Cross is the 18th century sculpture of the Pieta by Nicolas Coustou, which also has remained undamaged. For me, this work of art is the epitome of the cathedral. It is quite unlike Michelangelo’s famous Pieta that we see in Rome. In the depiction of the Pieta in Notre Dame, the dead Christ lays across the lap of his mother, Mary, who stretches her arms upwards with longing, anxious ardour. I have often thought that this evocative sculpture gathers all the hopes and desires of the many millions of people that encircle it each year, even without them being fully cognizant.
The rubble from the damaged roof of the basilica is now strewn before the sculpture. I wonder if the photo that captures this scene is a defining image of our time as a Church. Indeed, I wonder if the events in Paris become emblematic of a much larger experience into which we have been drawn, and if they explain, therefore, why the threatened destruction of the Basilica of Notre Dame has had such an emotional effect on many.
We have been so charred by the failings and inadequacies of our Church, by the constancy of the exposure of crimes against children and others, that much of that in which we have placed our trust has been ruined. Our trust has died. Our trust in the Church has died. But not only the Church. Our trust in other institutions such as the financial sector has also died. Our trust in institutions to keep our aged and those with disability safe has died. Bernard Salt, writing recently in The Australian, has suggested that our own decade is the one in which trust has gone bust. Our social trust has died. The edifice of institutions including our own Church is shattered, and we are left with a sense of ruin.
As Bernard Salt comments though, “the loss of trust breeds cynicism and creates social division; it rationalises self-interest; it is the antithesis of a united, loving and generous society.” And is it not a cohesive society for which we truly long - despite the death of our trust? There is something in us, even in the midst of the debris of our trust, that hopes, that yearns for things to be different. We want to trust. It is the hope that is represented by the sculpture at the heart of Notre Dame that endures the destruction around it. Though we may have lost patience with institutions such as the Church, the thought that it would no longer be present fills us with a sense of extraordinary absence and unease. We criticise it; we ignore it. But if it were no more? I wonder if this is what underscores the melancholy and sombre mood in Paris today, the mood that extends across the world. Yes, despite the death of our trust, we continue to intuit the truth and the beauty of what the Church is about. It is what has brought us here today to this commemoration in which both death and hope correlate. I think of the haunting prayer of the Italian spiritual writer, Carlo Carretto:
How much I must criticize you, my church and yet how much I love you.
You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe you more than I owe anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in the world have I seen anything more obscurantist, more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face - and yet, every night I have prayed that I might die in your arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
Then too - where should I go?
To build another church?
But I cannot build another church without the same defects, for they are my own defects.
And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ's church.
No, I am old enough. I know better.
Each of us is like the engineers now sifting through what remains of Notre Dame, those who are at the forefront of the scene of a disaster, those aware of the damage that has occurred and the risk that continues, but wondering at what can be saved and rebuilt, vigilant for all the positive indications that something new is possible indeed. I am aware that it is not easy to be identified with a community that is regarded with such suspicion, not only because of the crimes that have been committed in its name, but also because many of our perspectives are not shared by society. It takes courage to come into ‘the building’. It is not without risk. Like Parisians today, we cannot avoid the question of whether anything can be rebuilt, despite the appearance of façades. Yet even in the very crucifixion of trust, we long to be able to do so. Despite the assault on our trust something endures, something begins to stir and rise from the ashes.
As we keep our gaze on the multitude blessings we experience through the unmistakable goodness and generosity of those we know; as we remain faithful to our restlessness to create new possibility; as we reread the Scriptures with Jesus in mind, repeat his gestures in memory of him especially in the Eucharist, and live in fellowship with one another alive to the beauty of lives radiant with faith, hope and love, our numbness and our weariness, our anxiety and timidity, our loss of confidence and despair begin to pale and dissolve! What at first appears to be destruction will be the catalyst for something new. The building that seems to teeter on collapse will rise with vitality. Thank you for your part in making this a possibility in the example of those engineers working today on the floor of Notre Dame in Paris.