Wednesday night’s selection of the new Pope Francis was momentous here in Paris. At about 7 pm the single large bourden bell at Notre Dame started ringing with a low and unmistakable gong. We had heard it only once before, the night Pope Benedict stepped down. I turned on the TV and saw the white smoke at the Vatican. The church bells tell a lot.
We haven’t yet started to tour the most visited sites in Paris – haven’t been up in the Eiffel Tower, haven’t been inside the Louvre, the Musée de Orsay, or any of the other museums. We’ve been on a couple Paris walks and toured Notre Dame de Paris after stepping inside almost by accident one afternoon. The Catholic Churches are the thing we’ve seen most of in living here thus far. In addition to Notre Dame, we’ve been inside St Paul-St Louis (which was built by the Jesuits), St Gervais et St Protais, St Séverin, St Étienne du Mont, and the Abbey of St Germaine du Pres. All, not just Notre Dame, are spectacular Gothic works of art.
France is predominantly a Catholic country (Wikipedia said between 51 and 88% – don’t know why such a large uncertainty). Nevertheless, its huge ancient gothic cathedrals were irreparably damaged during the French Revolution. King Louis XVI inherited a financial crisis as a result of years of war, including the French support of the American Revolution. In an effort to restore a bankrupt treasury, the Revolution of 1789 stripped the Churches of most of their valuables. Thus relics (such as remains of the saints) were discarded and their gold containers melted down, the bells were taken from church towers, etc, and over the ensuing centuries with the French government no longer supporting the church to maintain its enormous infrastructure, much has fallen into disrepair. For instance, only the stained glass in the east and west roses of Notre Dame is original. The stained glass replacements for much of the rest did not in any way duplicate the originals. Unlike Italy, the French cathedrals have an asterisk beside the feeling that they are ancient treasures. Still the faithful of the Church turn out to visit – thousands and thousands come to Notre Dame, rain or shine or snow. We saw a wedding couple posing in the snow and cold last weekend, just so they could have a photo with the cathedral as the backdrop.
Our guide at Notre Dame spent perhaps an hour and a half explaining in great detail the symbolism of the sculptures, art works, and carvings in the cathedral. She conveyed clearly the biblical significance of all that we saw, and how that message was conveyed through the ages to give meaning to life, and does even so today for the faithful. In addition to honoring the common symbols of Christianity, the art works and carvings document in a most personal way those individuals important to establishing the church in Paris. To me, our guide seemed to be telling us that the church had much to provide, but not as a service to the tourists but in service to the faithful. The Church is committed to finding more members who are committed to the Church. This was a young woman who sacrificed a lot to come from outside the city to give a tour in English to whomever may have stumbled into her fold that day. She represents a tiny portion of the energy of the Church, all over the world, that glides beneath the surface while much of what we see and hear focuses on more sensational problems, such as the criminal acts of a tiny minority whom the church leadership may have failed to ensure were brought to justice. Over the years, British author and former nun Karen Armstong has published work after work showing how religions have changed over the ages to adapt to changes in society, thus enabling them to remain relevant in the lives of their believers. Such may be happening now with the Catholic Church, and perhaps to other world religions.
The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of education and medical services in the world. With more than 1.2 billion members, it constitutes about 20% of the earth’s population. What happens with the Catholics affects us all. Now the Church has selected a new Pope, clearly with the idea of pushing out in a new direction that emphasizes to the faithful the good that the church is doing in our world and the role of its membership in continuing that good. It will be interesting to see what impact that may have for Catholic France.