Many of us, in various parts of the world, watched in horror and disbelief when Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames. It was especially gut-wrenching to witness an infernal beast consume the roof and topple the steeple of one of the world’s great Christian cathedrals at the very beginning of Holy Week. Like other televised tragedies, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, the horrific spectacle in Paris commanded global attention and received blanket coverage from both mainstream and social media. And as with other history-making events, some journalists and pundits saw this as an opportunity to offer grave and poetic commentary. There was a lot of deliberating and moralizing. What did this distressing scene say about the current state of the scandal-plagued and ideologically divided Catholic Church? What was its message for secularized France? What fierce warning did it hold for a Western civilization that has become unhinged from its Christian moorings? In the end, Notre-Dame was not destroyed. And not a single life was lost, thanks be to God.
But the fire of this magnificent cathedral was a truly shocking thing to watch as I spent several hours switching back and forth through some of the channels available on my satellite dish: Italian State TV (RAI), Sky Italia, France24, Fox News… At CNN there was Chris Cuomo speaking about the symbolic importance of Notre-Dame for Catholicism and even the Vatican, wondering if the pope would actually go to Paris for Easter. “Imagine the image of Pope Francis in front of Notre-Dame saying Mass on Sunday. You know, with smoke still rising up from it as an idea of rebirth and renewal. How powerful that would be.” After briefly conceding the “concept from Catholicism (that) the Church is the people, not the places… and the people matter most”, Cuomo continued speculating. “It will be so interesting to see what pope does with this Holy Week, given this loss. Is there a chance that you see the pope not in Rome celebrating Easter Sunday, but here? What an important image that would be.” CNN’s correspondent in Rome, Delia Gallagher, said she “wouldn’t rule it out” because, “of course, we know that he’s a pope of surprises”. Jim Bittermann, an old hand with CNN who has been in Paris, off and on, for many years, said “it would be quite a remarkable symbol if this pope decided to come visit for the Easter Mass”. But he then cautioned, “It’s hard to believe that that could be organized so quickly, especially with the church still burning at this hour.”
Oh my, I thought. What to make of this sort of suggestive speculation? These are all top-notch reporters and news analysts. Is it possible that they have not really understood Pope Francis’s priorities or the change of mentality he’s tried to bring about these past six years? The 82-year-old Jesuit pope is, by no means, anti-cultural. He is not anti-European. But, at the same time, and despite the affection he would win back from the people of France, it would be out of character for him to drop everything and rush to Paris because a cathedral has been badly damaged by fire – even considering the artistic masterpiece and historically important religious symbol that it is. The pope of Laudato Si’ is more concerned about our own human destruction of God’s masterpiece – the created universe and the human person. Francis is more alarmed that we are killing ourselves from the earliest stages of life in the womb up to natural death; through wars, torture and human trafficking. He’s disquieted by our careless destruction of our “common home," through the pollution of the air we breathe and the water we drink; through the wars we wage and the greed that consumes us to the detriment of the poor, the week, the immigrant and refugee and all other outcasts of society.
Pope Francis has not focused his worldwide ministry on preserving the cultural and artistic heritage of Christianity, at least not the way that has been manifested over the centuries through structures built of precious stones. Instead, he tried to show us how to take care of so many “living stones” that we have long ignored or scorned. He has gone to places like Lampedusa and Lesbos to comfort refugees; he has spent every Holy Thursday in prisons, washing the feet of criminals, some who are not even Christians. Like his patron, St. Francis of Assisi, the pope has seen the call to rebuild the Lord’s house as a summons to repair God’s crumbling household – all of humanity made in God’s image and likeness– rather than a building made of wood and stone. As Richard Rohr has said, “Creation itself – not ritual or spaces constructed by human hands – was St. Francis’ primary cathedral.” And so it is for Pope Francis.
Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.